Digital jobs mesh with Whidbey Island living

High tech companies, especially those with fewer than 100 employees, are generally clean, quiet, and unobtrusive. Their demands on the community are often lower than other like-sized companies that require more public infrastructure, high water usage, and premium real estate. In many cases, the only pollution left behind from a day’s work is digital.

The Northwest is among the hottest high-tech spots in the world, with more than 22 percent of the Seattle region’s workforce employed in the technology industries, according to the Washington Technology Center. Although unknown, a large portion of Whidbey’s work force are commuting to high tech jobs in the Bothell and Everett areas.

Yet, as a bedroom community to the techno-crazed metropolitan area, Whidbey Island is still largely unexplored as a digital homeland for business. Compared to Seattle’s 22 percent, Whidbey Island has 687 jobs, or less than 7 percent of all jobs in high-tech fields.

To Tab Wilkins, director of Regional and Technical Services for the Washington Technology Center, that disparity translates into opportunity. It’s inevitable, he said, that technology-based companies will look more and more to Island County to take advantage of its quality of life and its proximity to Seattle.

During the recent downturn in the economy, high tech companies lost a lot of jobs throughout the state, he pointed out. But as the economy is regaining strength, it’s the rural areas that are showing the best job growth, he said.

Lindsay Communications in Langley is a high-tech pioneer on the island, having opened its digital doors 15 years ago. The company supports the communication needs of Fortune 500 companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Verizon.

“It really doesn’t matter where you work as long as you’ve got the intellectual capacity to support the industry,” said Diana Lindsay, who founded the business along with her husband, Kelly.

The high tech industry is much more interested in ability than location when it comes to putting together specific teams, she said. It truly is a global atmosphere with team members around the world tuned into accomplishing corporate goals via modem and telephone.

Even though Island County jobs are few compared to Seattle, Wilkins said he is impressed with the high tech growth on the island. Ten patents were received by Island County businesses between 1997 and 1999, he said. Nine new companies were started during that same time period.

Both of those figures are still well-below Seattle, but good for a rural area. “That is extremely competitive on a per capita basis with the rest of the state,” Wilkins said.

High tech doesn’t necessarily mean high visibility, but it is generally synonymous with high pay.

On the island, high tech jobs pay more than 50 percent above the average wages for all jobs, he said. In Seattle, it’s even higher. The lower wages on the island could be an incentive for a startup company to locate here, he said. Or some might interpret that figure as a sign of an unskilled work force, unable to demand higher wages, he said.

The skill level available locally was a big concern when the Lindsays originally started their business, Diana Lindsay said. But, no more. If they have a highly specialized need that can’t be filled here, they can work with someone in some other locale and conduct business electronically.

“It seemed a big hurdle at first,” she said. “Now we have a wonderful team with fantastic experience. I’m confident as we grow we’ll continue to find that talent.”

Bringing high-quality jobs to the island is a personal goal for the Lindsays, she said.

By definition, a high tech firm is one with 7 percent or more of the work force in an engineering and scientific field. This might include engineering and architectural firms, medical research, call centers, software and gaming developers, and some marketing and desktop publishing companies.

Lindsay believes the island is already dotted with more high tech firms than most people realize. She points out that high tech support companies like hers are usually small and often operated out of a home office.

“You need to be an entrepreneur to be here,” she said. “There’s a lot you can do with a computer and a modem and it doesn’t need a lot of infrastructure.”

The reward?

“We work in a beautiful place and it’s a wonderful place to raise our children,” she said. “And technology made it possible.”

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