When it formed, the Southwest Washington High Tech Council seemed to have two goals in mind: Improving transportation and grabbing a megaphone.
Nearly two decades later, having mostly secured both goals, the council is still a cohesive, politically influential group — though with an altered roster — with several initiatives in its sights. The council still counts transportation improvements among its top priorities, along with bolstering the supply of a qualified workforce. And there are other goals, too.
“The High Tech Council today basically is pushing technical training because it’s becoming more and more important,” said Robert Schaefer, the lawyer, former Democratic state legislator, 2013 Clark County First Citizen and longtime adviser to the council.
About 4,000 people are employed in technology-related jobs in Clark County. The council has been essential to growing that number, said Jennifer Baker, Columbia River Economic Development Council president.
“It’s energizing to see the strength of company engagement in Clark County — like the engagement and investment of the High Tech Council in helping develop a strong pipeline of skilled talent, ready to enter in-demand, high-wage jobs across our region,” Baker said in a statement to The Columbian.
In the beginning, though, transportation was a big target.
Seven companies signed on when the council formed in 2000. Traffic and growth moratoriums topped their list of grievances.
“We want to get away from focusing on symptoms and instead look for long-term answers,” John Marck, the council’s first president and president of Sharp Microelectronics of the Americas told then-Columbian business editor Julia Anderson in a 2000 interview. “We’ve got to get involved before the bomb goes off.”
A growth moratorium in east Vancouver, where most of the council members’ businesses were located, eventually was eased.
Riding that momentum, the council threw its political weight behind the construction of the interchange at Southeast 192nd Avenue and state Highway 14, something several council members had been seeking in Olympia since at least 1998. Gov. Gary Locke got on board and the interchange found its way into a larger statewide transportation package. Construction on the $13.8 million project started in 2001 and the interchange opened in 2003.
“Without the interchange, we saw real problems in handling growth in the east Vancouver/Camas area, where many of us have facilities,” Marck told Anderson in a 2005 interview.
Even then, the council included education among its priorities. But the approach to that issue, and other features of the organization, has changed.
For starters, the membership has shifted. Of the original seven, four remain: WaferTech, UL (then called Underwriters Laboratory), SEH America and Analog Devices (which acquired charter member Linear Technology Corp. in 2016). Gone: Sharp Labs, Columbia Ultimate (acquired by Ontario Systems in 2016) and Hewlett-Packard.
But the roster has been bolstered by the addition of nLIGHT (which joined shortly after its arrival in 2000 when it was called nLight Photonics), Silicon Forest Electronics, Kokusai semiconductor equipment, Kyocera International, and Clark Public Utilities.
Other issues the council has championed in the past include Senate Bill 5725, approved in 2003, which created tax incentives for expanding semiconductor manufacturing in the state; another tax incentive measure for the semiconductor industry approved in 2006; and creation of an electrical engineering program at Washington State University Vancouver.
The council now is led by Ben Bagherpour, vice president of of site services and government affairs for SEH America. As council president, Bagherpour has championed the importance of building a path from area schools to high-tech jobs.
“The lack of a solid pipeline of industry-related skilled workforce from K-12 through higher education remains a big concerns for us,” Bagherpour said in a recent interview with The Columbian, “as well as the gaps in knowledge of local industry among students and educators.”
Bagherpour listed these other areas of concern for the council:
• Higher energy costs: “Two of the Southwest Washington High Tech Council companies are the top power users in Clark County. Increased energy cost will hamper our competitiveness against our sister plants, as well as our outside competitors. It will negatively impact our growth potential in the future.”
• Additional taxes on utilities, employment or property: “They all will hamper our competitiveness in this global and boundary less economy.”
• Transportation and infrastructure: “High Tech Council companies and our customers, as well as our employees rely on a solid and reliable transportation system and infrastructure enhancements to serve their needs. Both Interstate 5 Bridge replacement and widening of (state Highway) 14 are two key projects under this category.”
In the interview with The Columbian, Bagherpour and Schaefer emphasized the importance of education.
“Southwest Washington high-tech manufacturing is an economic driver in our county,” Bagherpour said.
In 2011, the council joined with the SW Washington STEM Network to develop a Semiconductor & Electronics Manufacturing Technician training program. The initiative started last year as a pilot between SEH America, Evergreen Public Schools and Clark College.
Devon Laverne has been among its early beneficiaries.
Laverne, 18, wasn’t certain how he’d be spending his days after graduating last summer from Mountain View High School in the Evergreen district. Then, at the encouragement of a teacher, he attended a presentation about the pilot SEH America program. Laverne, who’d always had a strong aptitude for math and science, applied and was accepted.
“I like working with numbers and data,” he said.
While Laverne pursues an associate’s degree in mechanical automation at Clark College, with expenses paid by the pilot program, he earns $16 an hour as an entry-level SEH America employee working 24 hours a week.
“I’m able to go to college and not be in debt at the same time,” Laverne said. “I’ve got a pretty decent job for my first career job. If I continue on this path that’s plotted I’ll be a technician … all I have to do is work for it.”
Laverne knows that after the associate’s degree, SEH America has college reimbursement programs for employees.
“We’ll see what the future holds,” he said.
Meanwhile, the council this year initiated and received approval for the creation of a Center of Excellence for semiconductor and electronics manufacturing branch as part of the Aerospace and advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence in Everett, Bagherpour said. The center, funded through the state, supports workforce and economic development in aerospace and advanced manufacturing.
Ultimately, Bagherpour said, the council would like to see a state-funded Center of Excellence, promoting technical education, in Clark County.