In the battle for high-tech workers, Fairfax County has gotten down and dirty.
Economic development officials have launched an ours-is-better-than-yours campaign to lure valuable employees from California's Silicon Valley, moving well beyond the county's more typical strategy of helping to train locals for high-tech work.
The strategy: Convince Silicon Valley's programmers, network specialists and Web designers that living here is flat-out better.
"When you're making more at your job and wasting less on your mortgage, you'll be endlessly tempted to spend the difference on yourself," proclaims a glossy, four-page advertisement in Wired Magazine, practically required reading for the Silicon Valley info-tech crowd.
Yes, the San Francisco Bay Area has beautiful weather, Fairfax officials concede. But they insist that Northern Virginia's well-known reputation for crowded roads, sky-high stress levels and costly housing actually pales in comparison with the problems in Silicon Valley.
Take the cost of housing, they say. The median price of a home is $400,000 in Silicon Valley, compared with about $230,000 here. Median rent for a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment is $1,700 a month, about double the Fairfax County figure.
So as Silicon Valley's work force travels to and from work, it is being constantly cajoled:
"Fairfax County, Virginia, has beautiful, affordable neighborhoods," a drive-time radio disc jockey intones, "one of the country's best school systems, and IT opportunities galore. Start your career move at Fairfax County EDA dot ORG."
What do Silicon Valley's business leaders think?
Carl Guardino, the president of a high-tech trade organization called the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, shrugs his shoulders and chuckles, the reaction of a man used to this kind of thing.
"That's hilarious," he said. "This is almost as creative as when Minnesota tried to get people to travel to the frozen tundra to live up there by putting up billboards."
With a nagging high-tech worker shortage of their own, companies in Silicon Valley don't take anything lightly, Guardino said. "As Andy Grove of Intel says, `It's good to be paranoid. Sometimes they are out to get you.' "
Guardino predicted that few folks will take the Fairfax bait, in part because Silicon Valley is trying to address its shortcomings by building more affordable housing and expanding a light rail system to ease traffic congestion.
The national economic boom of the 1990s has been led by companies that design and build computer networks for corporate customers, provide technical support and training, and offer strategic advice about electronic commerce. On the consumer side, businesses that provide Internet services are multiplying quickly. The result: Skills that were barely conceived of a decade ago are in demand -- not at the fringe of the new economy, but at its center.
The shortage of workers with those skills is particularly intense in Fairfax County, where the business landscape is increasingly dominated by technology firms. With the lowest unemployment rate in the Washington area -- at 1.4 percent -- Fairfax companies can barely find any workers to fill their jobs, much less be picky about their hires.
"Every jurisdiction in Northern Virginia is 2 percent or lower" in its unemployment rate, said Steven Fuller, a professor at George Mason University. "There are no workers for almost any kind of job in reserve."
Fuller, who studies the regional economy, said the well-established programs to retrain workers for technology jobs are more likely to make a dent in the shortage, but he praised the county for what he called an innovative approach to its problem.
"It's sort of a new twist on their mission," he said.
That new twist has also led teams of county economic development officials to travel 3,000 miles to try to recruit the bright, young stars of the tech world at Bay Area job fairs, especially university students graduating with high-tech degrees.
Jennie Tran, 22, attended one such fair in January at the University of California at Berkeley, where she graduated this month. She recalls an energetic fellow making a strong pitch to leave her hometown and come to a place called Fairfax.
"I hadn't heard of it," said Tran, who plans to take a job in Silicon Valley as the manager of a video teleconferencing firm. "If I didn't have such a strong tie to California, I might have actually taken the opportunity to go out to Virginia and see."
Tran is just the kind of person envisioned by the new campaign, dubbed "Fairfax County. Come for a Job . . . Stay for the Lifestyle." The ads and the recruiting sessions, including two at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, have prompted more than 420 people to send their resumes to the EDA. Those are being shared with high-tech companies.
Economic development officials could not point to a single employee who has moved to the county because of the campaign. But they note that the advertisements and recruiting trips began in only January, and they're hoping for long-term results.
In the past, the county's development authority spent the advertising portion of its $5 million annual budget on more traditional economic development, such as trying to lure companies to the county.
That continues, but officials said they now recognize that bringing more companies to the county and keeping the ones they have depend in part on having the right workers living here.
"Workers are a zero sum game," said Gerald L. Gordon, president of the county's Economic Development Authority. "It's a very competitive business. If our employers can't get the right workers here, they'll go somewhere else."
Greener Grass In Fairfax?
Radio ads running in San Francisco and San Jose promote Fairfax County for its "beautiful, affordable neighborhoods, one of the country's best school systems, and IT opportunities galore." How Fairfax measures up against life in the Silicon Valley:
Silicon Valley 2.2 million
Median household income, family of four
Silicon Valley $84,600
Average monthly rent two bedroom, one bath
Silicon Valley $1,700
Median home price
Silicon Valley $400,000
SOURCES: Fairfax County, Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group