Letter writer: A high-tech Asheville requires shift in education

Graphic by Lori Deaton

We tell ourselves — often — that we are a tourist town, maybe hoping to excuse ourselves for the self-harm of supporting businesses that pay starvation wages.

And yet.

Comprehensive plan or no, the systematic destruction of the largest and most prominent of downtown’s tourist landmarks — Beaucatcher Mountain — continues apace. A 180-unit complex finishes construction, and a 100-unit one starts up. Plots on Windswept are clear-cut on Thanksgiving Day (what could possibly have been so urgent?). Pretty soon, the backdrop to downtown won’t be green, it will be serried ranks of apartment blocks, California-style — along with Californialike traffic and mudslides.

Are these the actions of a town that wants tourists to keep coming back? No, they are the actions of people caught up in the frenzy of yet another property bubble.

Prosperity Through Property died as an idea at Appomattox a long time ago. And yet, zombielike, it keeps returning to sweep up another generation in another property bubble. Property speculation does two things: It divides its participants into “winners” and “losers,” and generates inflation. It certainly does not generate what we need — new wealth.

Reason only rarely prevails against the madness of crowds, but here goes anyway.

The Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce is busy promoting Asheville as a center for advanced manufacturing businesses. The return on attempts to bribe them to come to Asheville with tax handouts, loans and grants will always be low — every other city in the country is trying the same thing.

The [city’s] current comprehensive plan mentions “industries of the mind.” We don’t know what they’ll be, but we do know that they will demand a degree of computer literacy far beyond what we teach our kids at the moment. Twenty years ago, the computer revolution had destroyed the old clerical jobs and created new ones — that got outsourced almost immediately. But just as there was no rule saying that those jobs had to be done in India or the Philippines, there is no rule saying that they can’t come to Asheville — just a lot of defeatist drivel.

A package to attract those jobs would require many moving parts, but the longest lead-time component would be an effort to get all our kids into an Asheville City Schools computer literacy pipeline. Starting with elementary school, they should be exposed to computing as fun — weekly rather than annual Hours of Code, maybe. Then by graduation from the middle school In Real Life [after-school] program, they should be able to design and build their own video games. Finally, by high school graduation, they should be able to use computational thinking in problem-solving. This pipeline would ensure that kids from Asheville starting work or college stand out from their peers as unafraid of computers, confident in using them creatively and for problem-solving.

There isn’t going to be any federal or state money to help — and with the state of local finances, it would have to be entirely volunteer-based. But the returns to it would be high, with Asheville transforming itself into a center of excellence for our high-tech world. Larger transformations have happened: Within my memory, what is now Silicon Valley was orange groves, yet the area has generated 500,000 new jobs in the last 10 years.

Thanks to the Asheville City Schools Foundation and its volunteers, we’re already underway.

— Geoff Kemmish
Asheville

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21 thoughts on “Letter writer: A high-tech Asheville requires shift in education

  1. Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

    I don’t claim to keep up with this, but I know of only one high tech company that has moved to Asheville in the last 25 years – ITT Teves. And then they expanded and moved to Henderson county where property is cheaper. Anyone know of any others that weren’t already here?

    • George

      There are actually quite a few software companies…Just check out venture asheville’s job postings in the programmer/tech category. The company where I work often struggles to find qualified local candidates.

      • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

        I wonder what is the percentage of local programmers who work for local companies compared to those who work remotely, or who travel to job sites, for companies in other cities/states? I bet there’s quite a few of the latter.

    • luther blissett

      “I don’t claim to keep up with this–”

      And properly-adjusted people who think this will choose not to share “knowledge” based on that thinking.

      • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

        Your standard for what constitutes properly-adjusted people doesn’t interest me – at all. I realize the way I talk sometimes goes over your head, but I think that might be because you would rather spew hateful criticism than to first stop and think. I don’t have to follow the matter closely. If something significant was going on I would know about it. So the ensuing comments prove that my initial comment is correct – very few advanced manufacturing companies have moved to the local area in the past 25 or so years.

        • luther blissett

          “If something significant was going on I would know about it.”

          Uh huh. You’ve stated in a parallel thread that you think of manufacturing in terms of big plants that employ hundreds of people, so who knows what you mean by “advanced manufacturing”.

          • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

            Advanced manufacturing is basically that which utilizes a high degree of technology and automation. I use the term to also to mean those companies that due to their size must employ a full spectrum of skill sets due to the complexity of operations. Craft breweries are not advanced manufacturing IMO due to their small size. They are basically low wage production jobs with maybe one or a few technicians per shift to handle all maintenance issues. A large brewery, however, would be an advanced manufacturing operation due to the complexity issues (and the requisite stratification of job functions) that arise when high production volumes are paramount.

  2. Joe

    The author makes the terrible assumption that teaching software development in our primary schools will lead to a better job revolution here. The reality is that people leave asheville to seek opportunity elsewhere–Asheville has produced a fair number of great software developers over the past few decades, most of whom live elsewhere now, in larger cities.

    A far better thing to do would be to attract companies (like RISC Networks) who will expand and create jobs in Asheville. Or provide better incentives/resources for founders in Asheville. The company I co-founded, BuildFax, employs more than 20 Ashevillians at this point, with very little support or help from the city, county, or chamber.

    That said, Josh Dorfman at the Chamber is doing great work in helping develop companies in Asheville–his efforts make a lot more sense to me than worrying about volunteering to help grade-schoolers code.

    • The Real World

      I agree, Joe. Businesses begin with a person/people having a specific idea, the will and the financial capital. They will then find employees with the particular expertise they need from anywhere in the USA.

      Couple of names to add: Avadim Technologies and AVL Technologies

      • luther blissett

        The basic point is that “technology” as taught in schools can’t ever map directly to the particular state of tech whenever someone graduates from school or even college. It’s an ever-broadening field, not a set of skills. Mr Kemmish shows his age by talking about the days when Silicon Valley was fruit groves, but ten years ago, smartphones were barely a thing.

        What are the basic resources that already exist in WNC that are considered valuable to the broader tech industry? Cheap energy and bandwidth, for a start — hence the big datacenters in Forest City and Lenoir and Maiden — but also experienced CNC facilities and other fabrication industries that matter in the shift towards IoT / networked hardware. In that context, “learn to code” is hand-waving. If you want growth and transformation, you need to look at what’s already there and build on it, ideally creating clusters of shared knowledge and expertise. Who’s doing precision machining? Who’s doing injection molding? Who’s thinking about the kind of tech work that could make use of those skills?

        • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

          “The basic point is that “technology” as taught in schools can’t ever map directly to the particular state of tech whenever someone graduates from school or even college. It’s an ever-broadening field, not a set of skills.”

          Not sure what you’re trying to say here, but it actually is specific sets of skills that can be taught in schools. The high tech in high tech companies basically consists of programming, IT admin/networking, science/engineering, and some production operations (eg, robots, CNC, PLCs).

          • luther blissett

            My point is that STEM skills aren’t like carpentry, and there’s inevitably a lag between what’s happening in the wider world and what makes it onto the syllabus — and what teachers can reasonably be expected to achieve in the classroom.

            People now have computers in their pockets that detect location, elevation, velocity, acceleration, can “see” through their cameras, and can (sometimes) work out what they’re saying. That wasn’t the case ten years ago, and programming has evolved rapidly to take account of those new inputs. A big chunk of admin/networking has moved to the cloud, so fewer and fewer stereotypical “IT guys” are maintaining local servers. Networked sensors are cheap enough that it’s easier to include them in products than exclude them.

            Nothing taught about computers in schools during the 80s prepared people for the rise of the internet. Nothing taught about the desktop internet during the 90s prepared people for the rise of smartphones.

  3. Deplorable Infidel

    WHY oh WHY must Buncombe Co and AVL citizens continue to FUND TWO SEPARATE government school systems ? ? ? ? ?

    WHY will NO one in these halls of learning or ‘foundation’ EVER ANSWER this simple QUESTION ? ????? WHAT are they AFRAID of ??? WHAT is the REAL REASON(s) for NOT having ONE homogenized government school system for true DIVERSITY and integration of ALL students ? ? ? City Schools ‘foundation’ is nothing but needless BS…

    • luther blissett

      ?? ??? ??? CAPS CAPS CAPS ?!?

      It may help before commenting on education threads, Fisher Caudle, to show that you can put together a sentence in something other than loon language.

      • Deplorable Infidel

        ‘loon’ language ? are capable of an explanation ? what I write about this is the absolute truth. WE the PEOPLE are being
        totally scammed allowing TWO separate government screwl systems!

        • Lulz

          The elitist who can afford it don’t care. Those that can’t are literally starved out of their homes.

  4. boatrocker

    I can only speak from my own experience, but I tend to find those who worship at the altar of ‘just buy more computers for schools and be done with it’ types to be among the most ignorant of any citizenry, with a lack of critical thinking/research skills, civics, history, and possessing the writing skills of a late night Trump tweet.

    Sadly, I’m also referring to those old enough not to be considered millennials as well.
    There are no easy solutions, otherwise some IT guy would have come up with one by now.

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