As members of the burgeoning Montana High Tech Business Alliance prepared to meet last week in Bozeman, they announced that the alliance includes 200 high-tech firms just a year after it was founded.
The announcement came as Greg Gianforte, who founded the alliance and is chairman of its board of directors, was meeting with chambers of commerce and local officials around the state, urging them to get on board in an effort to bring Montana natives back to the state to work.
“The number of high tech and manufacturing firms in Montana is astonishing,” Gianforte said in a news release. “The speed in which these firms have identified themselves and joined the Alliance is an indication of something great. These businesses represent the fastest growing industry in Montana. To see so many of them come to the table to decide how to improve and grow their industry in the state holds incredible potential to create better Montana jobs so we can stop exporting our kids and grandkids.”
When he met with the Billings Chamber of Commerce last month, Gianforte said efforts to bring Montanans back to Montana should not be restricted to high-tech jobs. Telecommuters can now work in a variety of jobs, including event planning and medical records, he said.
While those who attended the Billings meeting generally were enthusiastic about the prospect of bringing back new workers, they also raised some concerns.
The most visible were protesters from the Democratic Party, who held up signs and issued news releases calling on Gianforte to apologize for remarks he has made about Social Security and retirement. Gianforte had said that retirement was not mentioned in the Bible and that Noah built the ark when he was, according to the book of Genesis, 600 years old.Gianforte has been touted as a possible candidate for governor, although he has not announced his candidacy. He said after the Billings meeting that he hated to see his remarks made into a political issue.
Others at the meeting expressed more immediate concerns. Among them:
♦ The lack of high-speed Internet access in some parts of Montana. Gianforte said most Montana communities have enough bandwidth to handle telecommuting workers.
♦ A general lack of high-paying jobs in Montana. Some at the meeting noted that workers who come here for a good job, then lose it, may not be able to find another good job.
♦ A shortage of networking opportunities in Montana.
♦ A shortage of computer science majors here.
♦ The absence of cultural opportunities available in metropolitan areas.
♦ The low rate of unemployment already in cities like Billings, where the unemployment rate has been below 3 percent in recent years.
♦ Limited airline service.
♦ The inability of some workers to be productive outside of an office environment.
♦ The reality that not all parts of Montana are attractive to potential telecommuters. One Hi-Line resident reportedly said, “We don’t have much here, but there’s a lot of it.”
Steve Arveschoug, executive director of Big Sky Economic Development, said, “We can’t grow our economy if we’re not growing talent here.”
Bob Wilmouth, who ran the physician assistant program at Rocky Mountain College before become president of the college, agreed.
“Everybody needs to understand at age 4 what a college degree can do for them,” he said. But he said that 75 percent of PA students want to stay in Montana but only 25 percent actually do.
Gianforte said the key is to concentrate on Montana natives who may leave the state after college but who eventually want to return. The Internet makes it possible for many of them to keep their big-city jobs while still living in Montana.