PREPARING FOR A NEW ECONOMY

March 29, 2001 12:00 am

Preparing for a

new economy

Economically, Oregon has been in an enviable position for some time. The state long has had a strong agricultural base. And for years it had the wood products industry to sustain the economy. Once the wood products industry started to decline, high-tech began making inroads into Oregon, helping the state as a whole avoid economic catastrophe.

OREGON has been lucky. It has the land, natural resources and livability that have combined to keep the economy reasonably healthy. Weve had our highs and lows and some timber-based communities have not recovered from the changes in forest policy. But as a state weve been comfortable. Too comfortable, perhaps. Because of that comfort level, weve grown complacent and shortsighted about planning our economic future. Were still conditioned to the way things used to be.

Through much of Oregons history, higher education has been viewed as a luxury. We didnt push it and we didnt fund it very well either. For years, most folks who wanted to earn a decent living simply got jobs at the local mill.

But times have changed. Sadly, what has not changed is Oregons attitude about higher education and recognizing the need to train our young people for new kinds of jobs. Its time the state renew its commitment to the future, fund higher education at more than a subsistence level and invest in biosciences and engineering programs. The Legislature, which made strides to reinvest in higher education in the 1999 session, must find a way to fit Oregons future into the 2001-03 budget.

Oregons high-tech sector has been able to expand even though the state has been negligent about higher education funding. Sixty percent of high-tech job openings in Oregon are filled by people from other states. Oregon needs a top-tier engineering program, such as the one proposed by Oregon State University. The state, under the leadership and research of Oregon Health Sciences University and the Oregon Graduate Institute, is on the cutting edge of biotechnology, which is emerging as one of the leading technological industries of the 21st century. But we cant begin to fill the jobs that will be created by this new industry not without training people for the jobs.

So whats in it for those of us in the rural areas who are still reeling from timbers decline and technologys rise? Economic diversification is critical for all areas of the state. Our kids need cutting-edge educational opportunities, too.

OHSU has announced its plans for a biotech center at Eastern Oregon Universitys proposed new science center. The potential for growth is enormous. Our mainstay industries need highly trained workers, too. Agriculture is becoming more tech-savvy, and the wood products plants that are still in operation need engineers and technicians.

Oregon needs to look to and invest in the future. We mustnt let the new economy pass us by.