The bad news: The United States isn't producing enough highly trained professionals to fill the jobs in increasingly technological "knowledge" economy, said Columbia Basin College President Rich Cummins.
The good news: The Tri-Cities could play a strong role in filling those jobs through innovation and supporting the talented people who live in the Mid-Columbia, the nation and the world, said Washington State University Tri-Cities Chancellor H. Keith Moo-Young.
However, the Tri-Cities can't take on that role without help, the officials told about 200 members of the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce during a Wednesday luncheon at the Pasco Red Lion.
"The question is, how do we get the investment to get the full use of our resources," Moo-Young said.
The economy has changed markedly from the one dominated by manufacturing that the parents of baby boomers built, Cummins said. A high school diploma is no longer enough in a post-Great Recession economy and other countries already have caught on to that, leaving the U.S. behind.
"There was no recession for people with a bachelor's degree or more and no recovery for those with a high school degree or less," he said.
Most future jobs in a knowledge-based economy will require some post-secondary education, such as a certificate, if not a bachelor's degree, Cummins said. There's already a dearth of qualified applicants and some companies are having to look outside the country for employees.
That doesn't mean the country, and specifically the Mid-Columbia, can't rise to the challenge, Moo-Young said. WSU Tri-Cities has more than doubled the number of admissions applications for the next academic year compared to the current one through student recruiting.
He praised the relationship between the university and CBC and the relationships he's building with other Eastern Washington community colleges.
Moo-Young supported Start-Up Weekend, an event in September that supports designers, developers and others who want to move forward on a business enterprise, and another is already planned for March, he said.
The university is also moving forward with plans to build a "business accelerator" on its north Richland campus, part of a broader vision for a "Google-like" campus environment.
But creating more highly-trained graduates and developing new businesses and technologies takes money, the officials said. Tuition is one of the biggest hurdles people have to accessing education, Cummins said. Moo-Young said his concern is the need for cultural and social institutions to support the innovators and keep them from fleeing to cities like Seattle and Portland.
"Our students don't have a place to play," Moo-Young said.
Both men said they are taking steps to recruit and support students. Cummins said he's trying to find the money by trimming other parts of the college's budget. "The challenge is, there isn't any more money (from the state)," he said.
Private investment is likely what will be needed to move the Tri-Cities and its institutions forward -- whether from a growing wine industry, or the development of an "angel investor" network for the region, Moo-Young said.
"A lot of the things on this list are very doable," Moo-Young said.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald