by Janet Roach
It's been 10 years since the start of the Great Recession. When the bottom fell out of the markets and banks failed, Hampton Roads was hit hard. Our red-hot housing market took a hit. Friends and neighbors lost their homes and their jobs. Tourism dollars and defense spending dried up. There was uncertainty all around.
Now a decade later, Hampton Roads is taking heed of lessons learned from the Great Recession.
Nowhere is that lesson better understood than at Portsmouth technology services company, SimIS. SimIS, which stands for "Simulation and Information Security," was founded in 2007 by Navy veteran Johnny Garcia, just as the economic walls across the country were starting to tumble down.
Recently named the 2018 Small Business of the Year for Portsmouth and Hampton Roads, SimIS is a perfect example of how Hampton Roads’ dependence on defense spending both helped and hurt the region following the recession. About 46 percent of the economy relied on defense. According to one analogy by an ODU economist, defense spending was the umbrella that kept Hampton Roads dry from the recessionary rain.
But it also slowed down the need to pursue more diversification of the economy, while other metro areas forged ahead.
“That’s all I did was defense. I did nothing else but defense,” says Garcia explaining the early days of his company.
Governor Ralph Northam says the lessons are pretty clear on what Hampton Roads and the state needs to do to ensure its economic success.
“We have always and always have been dependent on our military and government contracting, but we need to continue with urgency to diversify our economy.”
And 10 years later, that urgency is being felt from schools to shipbuilding.
Northam’s administration is placing a strong emphasis a creating a more technological-savvy workforce.
“With the really tight labor market and the unemployment level being so low, we're starting to see private companies poaching from each other. So again, we still need to build a bigger pool of talent that have these skills for everyone,” says Megan Healy, Northam’s Chief Workforce Development Advisor.
Garcia reinvented his company, embracing the future in technology, robotics, modeling and simulation, software development, artificial intelligence and more. He marries that skill-base with what the military needs, like autonomous ships and digital shipbuilding.
“We build robotic systems, autonomous systems for use of force simulation systems to train police officers to train soldiers, to robotic boats that are used for training and testing.”
But what’s exploding growth at his company is transferring those same technological skills into other industries, including the medical field where his gaming systems are being used to train medical professionals.
He uses an XBOX type system to train people how to perform CPR.