Johnstowners should be proud and amazed when they finish reading this year’s Tribune-Democrat Progress Edition. High-tech has led our diversified economic renaissance in ways I couldn’t imagine even a decade ago.

For me to predict where technology will take us next would be as useful as my NCAA bracket sheet that I crumpled weeks ago. Instead, I’ve compiled my top three technology issues to consider as our region moves further into the new millennium. Competitive differentiators among communities are evolving more rapidly than ever, so contending with these challenges quickly and effectively will make or break our momentum.

At my No. 1 position is the education status of our work force. Johnstown is located where it is because early America developed according to native geographic features. Abundant reserves of coal and iron ore coupled with river access naturally selected Conemaugh and its environs for being dominant in steel production.

Later, man-made infrastructure – roads, utilities, telecommunications – drove economic success. Now, we’re transitioning to a period where less tangible but equally real assets – highly educated workers – are paramount to prosperity.

According to the 2000 Census, 24.4 percent of all U.S. residents 25 and over have bachelor’s degrees or better. In Cambria County, we registered a bit more than half that at 13.7 percent. By 2005, though, we increased to 18 percent and actually gained ground on the rest of the country.

We can’t let up on encouraging more higher education among our youth. Associate and other technical degrees have their place, but it’s the scientists, engineers and other PhDs that provide the foundation of a knowledge-based economy.

Organizational commitment to lifelong learning is important, too. Leading edge technology skills aren’t absolutely critical, but you have the makings of a dilemma if your administrative assistants are still comfortable with Lotus 1-2-3.

In second place, and continuing my education theme, is the embryonic nature of applied research and development by students and faculty at local colleges and universities.

Our post-secondary schools can’t compete with the Pitts and Penn States of the world in capabilities or grant flow, but numerous undergrad research and development models exist for us to benchmark, and money is available. For example, the National Science Foundation is one entity that has funding programs specifically directed at undergraduate research.

Building more robust research and development programs at local post-secondary institutions is important to Johnstown’s economy for at least three reasons:

1. They develop people who are better prepared to share their knowledge and insight with business owners in the area.

2. They generate intellectual property on which to base new businesses. And, along with an educated work force, they’re a main draw for recruiting tech companies from outside the region.

3. The schools themselves also benefit from other, various, multiplier effects.

My third and final consideration is the manner in which most new Johnstown technology companies finance their growth.

With a few notable exceptions, equity investment by angel groups and venture capitalists is almost unthought of here. We’re comfortable with bootstrapping, debt financing and the few grants that may be available, but none of these have comparable impact on new tech company survival and expansion.

Equity investment financing has its foibles as any small tech company that has considered it here will tell you.

Nevertheless, Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development is a huge proponent and it’s successfully used throughout all the tech havens in the country.

My second tier of topics is only slightly less important for Johnstown to continue on its technology based growth path, but are far too numerous to detail here. Culling the collaboration and the resources to make a dent in the first three is work enough for us anyway.

Although communities flourish because of their advantages over other regions, reliance on technological advancement is never the complete answer to economic development.

For us, in any given year the theme of the Progress Edition is secondary to our collective heart.

I’m certain that it’s the Johnstown spirit that’s the main driver behind our success. It’s our people, not our things, who make the difference.

Bob Shark is vice president of procurement and technology at Johnstown Area Regional Industries.

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