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Cityscrapes: Why smart San Antonians keep moving to Austin

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Last week, a longtime University of Texas—San Antonio tech staffer stopped by my classroom to say goodbye. She announced that she was leaving UTSA for a better job with much better pay. In the tech sector. With a private employer. In Austin.

Her story is by no means unique. A number of tech folks have left recently for better jobs in Austin. It’s a situation that many local commentators and business leaders have long observed. But as we consider the kind of San Antonio we want to build over the next decade with new mayoral leadership, it’s vital that we think about where we stand in terms of high tech employment, and why we keep losing valued folks to Austin.

Let’s start with the “jobs” part. A December 2012 report by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute compared metro areas in terms of high tech employment. Not surprisingly, the San Jose-Sunnyvale, Calif., metro—the home of Silicon Valley—ranked number one in high tech jobs as a percentage of the overall market, at 28.8 percent. The Cambridge, Mass., area came in at number four, with 20.3 percent, immediately followed by metro Seattle at 18.2. And Austin, the top Texas metro area, made the list at number 14, with 10.7 percent of its overall employment in high tech for a total of more than 67,000 jobs.

As for San Antonio, we placed number 56, with just 5 percent of our employment in high tech for 34,200 jobs—half of Austin’s total. We’re behind Dallas at number 20, and Houston ranked 45th. That employment picture puts us even with Detroit and Anchorage, and a bit ahead of Kansas City.

In August 1982, San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros unveiled his so-called Orange Book: “San Antonio’s Place in the Technology Environment: A Review of Opportunities and a Blueprint for Action.” There was indeed action. Cisneros and the Economic Development Foundation traveled widely to California and Asia in search of new employers and succeeded in bringing some to town. But most of those new high tech employers, such as chipmaker VLSI (later Phillips Semiconductor), didn’t stick. And even some homegrown firms, notably Datapoint, found they couldn’t manage the dramatic pace of innovation and change. The constant evolution of the tech sector also makes it risky to rely on a successful local firm like Rackspace as the lone vehicle for achieving future job growth and success. However valuable Rackspace may be to San Antonio today, examples of how quickly and dramatically the situation of individual firms can and will change can be see in Compaq in Houston and Dell in Austin.

The difference between Austin and us isn’t some grand geographical endowment, beaches or mountains. It’s not the climate or water supply or available land. Simply put, it’s the nature of our respective labor forces. In a globally competitive environment, the cities and metro areas that succeed are those with the best educated populations. That’s where San Antonio falls behind Austin, and a host of other areas.

Among the 100 largest metropolitan areas as of 2010, Washington, DC, leads the list with the highest proportion of its population holding college degrees at 46.8 percent. Next comes the San Jose metro and Silicon Valley with 45.3 percent. San Francisco ranks fourth, right behind the Connecticut suburban cities of Stamford and Greenwich, followed by Madison, Wis., and Boston. Austin places eighth at 39.4 percent, just above Denver, Minneapolis and Seattle. Dallas comes in at 35th, about on par with the Los Angeles metro area. And San Antonio? We rank number 80 of the 100, just below Greensboro, N.C., and just above Memphis.

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