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San Diego Presence Weak At Comdex

The San Diego Tech Force is heading to Comdex this week as part of its aggressive bid to draw high-tech talent into "Technology's Perfect Climate." They may be lonely.

The Tech Force, which is a consortium of local companies hungry for more engineers, has set its sights on the prize with its efforts at Comdex '98, the computer industry's premier trade show held annually in Las Vegas. More than a million people are expected to show up to check out the wares of more than 2,200 exhibitors, and many of them are presumed to be tech-savvy workers with resumes in hand looking for a better place to live and work.

But even though sun and beaches are easy draws for many people, the Tech Force will have its work cut out for it this time. For one thing, San Diego still has not changed its image to the outside world that it is more than just a defense industry town with good surfing, a fact that became apparent in the last two weeks when two national publications snubbed America's Finest City in issues ranking the country's hottest tech and business towns.

But a bigger problem for the group will be a dismal showing of local firms at the show, which is regularly viewed as a barometer of health for the technology and computer industries. Only about a dozen local firms bothered showing up this year, which means San Diego is represented in exactly one-half of one percent of Comdex exhibitors. The absence was particularly noticed in companies like Cymer and Encad, two local companies that play heavily in the computer industry but have fallen on hard times of late with downturns in that industry.

These factors could put a serious crimp in the region's efforts to attract more skilled workers. Large employers like Qualcomm and SAIC say they need more engineers and other tech workers than they have so far been able to attract on their own. Other firms have felt this as well, which led to the creation of the Tech Force. The coalition has gone to tech centers like Silicon Valley and Boston to woe away talent from other companies.

Despite the efforts, which include a new recruiting video and the "Technology's Perfect Climate" slogan, San Diego has still failed to capture much attention. Both Newsweek and Fortune magazines left the city out of their cover stories this month ranking hot cities for technology and business, favoring cities like Salt Lake City, Austin and Boise instead. Editors from both publications said their rankings were based on employment growth, success stories and having a large corporate tech player around which to build an industry.

This is part of San Diego's problem. Qualcomm, with more than 10,000 employees, is well-respected within its industry but is still not familiar to the general public. SAIC, another top employer for tech workers, is still seen as mainly a defense contractor despite its numerous projects on the commercial side. Most of the region's other players are small to mid-size businesses with little if any name recognition in the field.

This will be noticeable at Comdex. Qualcomm is there, of course, as are chipmaker Kyocera and software firms Cardiff Software, Blue Sky Software and Peregrine Systems. PC manufacturer Gateway has an exhibit but, local hoopla aside, the firm is still seen as a South Dakota company. The low showing may make it difficult for local recruiters to point to examples of San Diego's tech population.

The group, however, is optimistic.

"We are not as concerned about that, although it would be nice to have more local companies there in attendance," said Tech Force spokeswoman Candice Paul. "The thrust of this is to get the word out that we are a major high-tech hub in the world. It's basically a big promotional effort."

Given San Diego's luck so far, it couldn't hurt.

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