How Much Have We Lost?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Microchips, Tobacco, Coal & the New Dominion

Today, I took a tour with fellow freshman Delegate Torian of Northern Virginia's biggest microchip manfucturing plant in Manassas owned by Micron. It was a fascinating experience.

My first thought was why did IBM locate this here? It turns out that IBM located this facility here in the 1970s because of a couple important things: (1) Manassas' brand new public water system (infrastructure), (2) an educated workforce, (3) proximity to an airport (infrastructure), and (4) proximity to three large power lines (infrastructure). Three things that the Commonwealth has been completely neglecting for the last two decades.

The processes were fascinating. Although 1,600 people work in the facility, the semiconductor manufacturing process is nearly entirely automated and done by robots. Little carts full of semiconductors whirled around the ceiling and dropped in and out of dozens of manufacturing devices that cost $50 million each and are frequently replaced. I would have loved to take pictures, but we were not allowed.

Most of the employees are technicians and engineers. A high school diploma is not enough - an associates degree is a bare minimum requirement.

They pointed out to me that this facility has $3 billion of capital invested in it. Their company has over 1,700 patents and has also been rated to have some extremely high quality patents. They also recycle and reuse most of their water and have won several environmental stewardship awards from the Commonwealth.

We also talked about how several years ago microchips passed tobacco and coal as Virginia's top exports.

Coal and cigarettes, move over. There's a new leader among Virginia exports. It's the computer chip. Virginia chipmakers shipped $1.5 billion of the tiny, high-tech devices overseas last year, topping longtime heavyweights coal and cigarettes, according to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. Chip exports were almost twice those of coal, at $882.9 million, and triple those of cigarettes, at $510.8 million, reported the state authority charged with increasing the commonwealth's economy. Computer Chips Now Lead Virginia Exports, Virginian-Pilot (Feb. 24, 2007).

These wafers end up in computers, flash drives, cell phone cameras, cell phones, cars, appliances, everything.

While the Northern Virginia Technology Community is one of the fastest growing business segments in Northern Virginia, this facility is especially unique. Years ago, I learned that all technology businesses are not created equal. Businesses that create patents are especially valuable to a community because the intellectual capital they create through research and development catalyzes investments in universities, turbocharges job growth, and creates all kind of spin-off effects (all of which Micron does). This is why Silcon Valley's technology community's growth has been so much more explosive than Northern Virginia's.

These kinds of assets are extremely valuable. We need more of these kinds of jobs and we need more of them close to Mount Vernon. To get these high quality jobs in our community, we need to invest in our infrastructure.

The funny thing is that when it came time to leave, they took our picture in front of their Welcome Sign - it was decidedly NOT high tech!

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