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Call center blues: San Antonio's slow start courting the creative class still stings

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Great news for SA! Southwest Airlines is expanding its San Antonio call center. It will bring us 322 new jobs, paying $12 an hour, or about $25,000 a year.

Great news for Austin! Apple has committed to spending $304 million to expand its operations there, bringing 3,635 new jobs.

Something doesn't quite match here. It must be Austin's better climate. No, it's Austin's beaches that appeal to Apple. Or perhaps it's Austin excellent highways and lack of traffic?

No. We know, or should, why Austin gets the kinds of jobs that Apple represents, and we get one of Southwest's call centers. It's not because of Austin's magnificent climate, or the fact that it has one rail transit line, or because Austin has a nice convention center. It's because Austin has a highly educated workforce, the kind of workforce that out-competes San Antonio when it comes to well-paying high-tech jobs.

When the CEOs for Cities organization put out their report on the "Young and the Restless in a Knowledge Economy" in December 2005, they could say "The growth in the number of college-educated young adults is fueling prosperity in places like Austin, Charlotte, Atlanta, Portland and Phoenix." San Antonio was growing then, and it is still growing. But our growth is different from theirs, and our economy is on a very different trajectory, as the difference between the Southwest and Apple's job announcements make clear.

Joe Cortright's analysis of the "Young and the Restless" (available at ceosforcities.org) contains a wealth of basic data on major metro areas and populations as of 2000. It documents the success of metros across the country in attracting and keeping talented, mobile young workers. How did San Antonio stack up?

Las Vegas, a city that has long attracted service workers without a college degree, came in at number one, followed by Charlotte, Austin, Portland, and Atlanta. Those are the cities with growing professional and white collar employment opportunities, like Charlotte's banking and finance sector. We came in at the middle of the pack, ranking 26th.

Some cities, like Las Vegas, saw growth in the "young and restless" population simply because they were growing overall during the 1990s. So Cortright constructed a measure of the "excess" growth of educated young adults, beyond the area's overall population change. By this measure, the two most attractive metro areas for talented young people were Charlotte and Portland. San Antonio? We came in at number 36.

The bottom line for San Antonio? The city and the metro area keep growing and adding jobs, but we began well behind the "knowledge centers" like Raleigh/Durham, Boston, San Francisco, and even Austin. Anyone looking for a job here knows the reality. We have lots of low-wage service jobs, but there is a real lack of well-paying professional, white collar jobs. San Antonio is not a major corporate headquarters city, and some major headquarters, like AT&T, have left for other places.

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