May 09, 2001 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

A drive to boost state funding for high-tech education at Oregons universities could ultimately stoke Union Countys economic engine.

This is the belief of Skip Rung, co-chair of the New Economy Coalition, a task force representing Oregons high-technology industries.

The New Economy Coalition is trying to get the Oregon Legislature to provide significantly more funding for high-tech programs at the states universities.

The coalitions objectives include getting the Legislature to provide funding to help Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland establish a top-tier biosciences center.

Such a center would benefit Union County if Eastern Oregon Universitys proposed new science building is built, Rung said.

Eastern is trying to put together state, federal and private funding for the building, which would cost about $33.5 million.

Rung noted that plans call for biotechnology research to be conducted by OHSU at EOUs new science building.

This will allow for expanded biotechnology research in conjunction with OHSU, bring new jobs, and new educational opportunities and new research dollars to La Grande, said Rung, a research and development manager at Hewlett-Packard in Corvallis who recently visited La Grande.

OHSU is now merging with the Oregon Graduate Institute and will soon have a different name.

Getting the Legislature to provide funding for an OHSU biosciences center is a key part of the New Economy Coalitions agenda, Rung said. The coalition also wants the state to double its number of engineering graduates by 2005 and work to make Oregon State Universitys engineering program one of the top 25 in the nation.

Rung said Oregons economy is more dependent on high-tech than any state except Texas. Nevertheless it does not have a university with an engineering school ranked among the top 25.

Oregon States engineering school is rated at about 70th, Rung said.

Stronger engineering programs which produce more graduates would be welcomed by Oregons high-tech industry, Rung said.

He noted that presently Oregons high tech-firms must hire many of their employees from out of state because the states universities

do not produce enough qualified graduates.

Our colleges and universities, while they are good institutions, have not been able to provide enough employees to meet the demands of existing companies, Rung said.

Oregon employers prefer to hire people from within the state, Rung said, because they are likely to stay longer.

Rung said if companies must continue filling their positions by recruiting out of state, they will leave to go where they can find the skilled workers they need.

Rung is encouraging people to write their legislators in support of the New Economy Coalitions agenda. More information on the New Economy Coalition is available at the La Grande-Union County Chamber of Commerce office.