Opinion | Spread the Digital Wealth

By Ro Khanna

There are plenty of ways to deliver tech jobs to rural communities.

By Ro Khanna

Mr. Khanna, a Democrat, represents Silicon Valley in the U.S. House.

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Mathew Watson worked at his home in Hueysville, Ky., in August on coding for an app from Florida.CreditCreditMike Belleme for The New York Times

One key question for the United States in the 21st century is whether noncoastal towns and rural communities, including many communities of color, will be able to participate in the digital revolution. We know that almost all Americans are avid consumers of technology, but many lack the opportunity to do the creative work that fuels our digital economy.

At stake is the dignity of millions of people. Within the next 10 years, nearly 60 percent of jobs could have a third of their tasks automated by artificial intelligence. Many traditional industries are becoming digital. Recently, a senior hotel executive described his business to me as essentially a digital one, explaining that his profit margins were contingent on the effectiveness of his software architects. Today’s hospitality vendors, precision farmers and electricians spend significant time on digital work.

Economists keep telling those left out of our digital future to move to the tech hubs. Sometimes I wonder if they have ever been to places like Jefferson, Iowa, or Beckley, W.Va. If they visit, they will realize that many people there are not looking to move. They are proud of their small-town values and enjoy being close to family. They brag that their town doesn’t need many traffic lights. And they worry about a brain drain.

These places also are not looking to become the next Silicon Valley. They are self-aware enough to recognize that there are benefits for the world’s top engineers and computer scientists to flock to Palo Alto, Calif., or Austin, Tex. They understand why venture capitalists betting millions of dollars would want to be close to the start-ups they fund to have some control and accountability. But the choice facing small towns should not be binary — it should not be “adopt the Silicon moniker or miss out on the tech future.”

Although the most advanced software innovation may take place in big cities with research universities, there is a lot of work concerning the application of software to business processes and the administration and maintenance of software systems that can be done remotely. Shame on us for shipping over 211,000 of these jobs offshore to countries like Malaysia and Brazil. Americans have an advantage in doing them because of a cultural understanding of what businesses need and a more convenient time zone.

Small towns can also sustain entrepreneurial activity that is tailored to their needs. Consider the fifth-generation internet service provider in Jefferson, Iowa, that was willing to make a bet on investing in fiber to serve a 4,200-person town. Jefferson is not chasing brand-name venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road but is seeking more modest investments in local businesses that will solve local problems.

So, what more can we do to make sure rural America has its share of middle-class jobs and businesses that will be the backbone of the digital economy? We need to provide additional funds to existing community colleges and land-grant universities to create tech institutes in places left behind. West Virginia University’s new tech institute in Beckley provides a model, equipping students with practical degrees or credentials that lead to jobs.

The federal government also should invest $80 billion to have affordable high-speed internet — preferably fiber — in every corner of this nation. We need to pay special attention to the racial gap in the affordability and adoption of broadband. Our infrastructure should not be a barrier to remote work.

Finally, the federal government can change incentives. When awarding federal software contracts, agencies should give favorable consideration if at least 10 percent of the work force is rural. We should, moreover, adopt stronger Equal Employment Opportunity reporting requirements for companies on the number of programmers they hire by country and location.

When I was in Beckley to visit the new tech campus, I was reminded of the story of John F. Kennedy’s visit to West Virginia during his 1960 campaign, when coal miners enthusiastically supported his vision for going to the moon. Our nation has always had a love affair with innovation. I saw that spark in the Beckley students, many from coal mining families, who were eager to show off their tech projects.

One of the most popular teachers was a Pakistani-American woman, with a thick accent, who was teaching software design. When some of the Beckley students asked me what more they should do to bring tech, I joked that they would be wise to open up a few more Pakistani or Indian restaurants. There was awkward silence and then laughter. If we can figure out how to give more Americans a shot in tech, a shot at the ordinary jobs that don’t necessarily afford rock star status or come with generous stock options but that can sustain middle-class life, then we might just take a step toward stitching our nation back together.

Ro Khanna (@RoKhanna) is a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from California’s 17th District, which includes Silicon Valley.

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