Chicago: High-Tech Heaven?

N E W   Y O R K, Aug. 20, 2001 -- Stockyards. Railroads. And silicon?

That's right, a study released this month shows Chicago, the traditional center of industrial America, having more high-tech jobs than any other metropolis in the United States. The Windy City has 347,000 such jobs, according to the survey's authors, Ann Markusen and Karen Chapple, professors of public policy at the University of Minnesota.

That places Chicago ahead of Washington, D.C., the runner-up, and some other locales better known as technology hotbeds, including San Jose, Seattle, New York and Boston.

Even Markusen says she was "surprised" to see the Second City in first place on her list. But the rankings come with a twist: the authors did not limit their survey to the popular image of high-tech jobs — chip makers, software programmers and dot-com start-ups.

Instead, Markusen and Chapple also counted technology-centered jobs within a variety of industries including pharmaceuticals, medical instruments, engineering, services and even public relations. They say doing so better reveals how many people work in positions created by high-tech developments, and makes the overall link between technology and the sustained economic growth of the 1990s more evident.

"It underscores how important diversification is in regional economies," says Markusen.

The High-Tech Top 10

'Low on Hype, Low on Changing the World'

The survey's definition of technology jobs also fits the practical-minded self-image of some people in Chicago's high-tech community.

"Chicago is low on hype, and we're low on changing the world," says Tristan Hoag, President of, an on-line business technology provider in downtown Chicago. He adds: "We've got a large pool of people that are well-trained with solid professional backgrounds … we are not burdened with the dot-com bubble mentality."

Even among start-up companies in Chicago, there seems to be a different work culture compared to Silicon Valley, traditionally considered to be the technology epicenter of the U.S.

"It's a lot more conservative out here," says Curtis Erhart, a programmer at in Chicago, who worked in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s before moving to Chicago. "There's still a lot more of the traditional corporate attitude about the work ethic. The companies in Silicon Valley were a lot freer in that regard — although that ruined a lot of companies in Silicon Valley, too."

Preventing Brain Drain

With the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, the Illinois Institute of Technology and other universities in the area, Chicago does share one of Silicon Valley's chief assets: a steady supply of high-tech talent.

Indeed, in the early 1990s a group of graduate students at the University of Illinois in downstate Champaign-Urbana created Mosaic, the first Web browser, and formed the technical core of the company that became Netscape, which not only made the Web accessible to millions but started the trend of dot-com companies going public.

Silicon Valley-based Netscape, however, also epitomized the trend of talented tech types migrating to the West Coast in order to establish their businesses. That's one reason Chicago's mayor, Richard Daley, has been making a push of his own to bring even more high-tech jobs to the Chicago area, seeing them as a growth engine in a slowing economy.

"If Chicago is to maintain its economic leadership, we have to make technology a larger part of the mix," said Daley on Aug. 1, unveiling his own plan to bring high-tech jobs to the city. The mayor's office claims that doubling tech positions in the city can create 40,000 new jobs in five years.

Mayor Daley: We'll Pass on Dot-Coms, Thank You

Daley has shown an eagerness to change Chicago from a city known mostly for heavy industry to a place on the front edge of technology, dubbing the area the "Silicon Prairie" and calling fiber-optic communications "the new railroad" while aiming to bring high-speed phone lines to every neighborhood of the city.

The mayor has also remained wary of the dot-com craze, noting "the collapse of a lot of overvalued technology companies during the last year and a half" and pledging to create jobs in four specific areas: biotechnology, nanotechnology, software and wireless systems.

Markusen, for one, is taking a wait-and-see attitude about the value of the biotechnology sector, but agrees that stimulating across-the-board technology growth instead of specializing in one sector is a sensible approach.

"Chicago is very diversified, and it's very impressive," says Markusen. "But it does have to worry about its future. To be a seedbed of innovation, you have to keep looking ahead … You have to keep encouraging entrepreneurship."

Tech Slowdown Hits Chi-Town, Too

One problem in that regard: Chicago has fewer venture capital firms or established businesses bankrolling technology firms than Silicon Valley or New York.

"So far, the big-business community and the start-up community have been ships passing in the night," says Hoag.

And despite Chicago's wealth of tech jobs, the technology slump of the last year and a half has also limited opportunities for local workers.

"When I first moved here two years ago, I put my résumé out [on job-search Web sites], and within a couple weeks I was flown out twice to interview with four companies," says Erhart. "It's dried up considerably from where it was two years ago."

Erhart adds that for the time being, technology workers in Chicago are taking the same approach as their colleagues elsewhere: "If you have a job, hold onto it like grim death, because there's not going to be anything else."