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The `missing' workers of Silicon Valley

In order to survive Silicon Valley's sky-high housing costs and serious traffic problems, Patrick Burnstad, a computer consultant, has put his battered camper to use. Mr. Burnstad lives in Calistoga in the Napa Valley more than 120 miles north of where he works. But by bunking in his camper, he is able to stay in the valley for several days at a time, alternating several days at home.

Burnstad is also one of the 40,000 so-called ``missing workers'' of Silicon Valley.

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``I find I am addicted to the excitement of working in the valley, but I need to get away from it for periods of time so I can digest what I have learned,'' says Burnstad, a Silicon Valley veteran now working on expert systems programming.

A number of Lockheed Corporation workers have come up with a similar solution. There are recreational-vehicle colonies at a number of their plants, employees report. Because Lockheed provides all the facilities they require, life in the parking lot is satisfactory and extremely convenient.

Richard C. Carlson of SRI International recently told a group of electronics industry executives, ``I've been working with [Santa Clara] County transportation officials, and we can't figure out where you got your last 40,000 workers,''

Since 1980, companies in the valley have created about 100,000 new jobs, the analyst explained. During that period, only 20,000 new dwelling units were added. That leaves 80,000 commuters unaccounted for.

If this were the case, ``we can't understand why traffic is moving at all!'' Dr. Carlson explains. Traffic in the area already is so heavy that the highway system is on the verge of collapse. Still, it is not the total gridlock that transportation engineers calculate would occur if much more than 40,000 new commuters were added during this period.

Housing and transportation in Silicon Valley are bleak spots in the area's future, says Carlson. Under construction in the area are between 50,000 and 100,000 square feet of additional office space. But there is not nearly enough housing being built to accommodate the workers expected to fill that space.

The obvious solutions are to build more housing and improve the transportation system. But these are long-term, extremely expensive projects, the SRI researcher explains.

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A more immediate response has been to stagger work hours. Valley rush hours have spread to more than three hours in duration.

The valley's workers also appear to be doubling up in homes: two income families also mean two workers per household. Sixty percent of the area's work force are women, a ratio matched only by Washington, D.C., and Sweden. Also, there appears to be a substantial amount of house sharing. Homes selling for $100,000 are at the very bottom of the market.

Another trend is out-migration. Minorities and the elderly are being squeezed out of the area. In a reversal of the pattern of industrial cities where the blue-collar laborers have lived in the unpleasant conditions near the factories while middle and upper management commuted from the suburbs, the campus-like conditions at the post-industrial electronics companies have led executives to locate nearby while low-paid workers commute.

Finally, there is the growing use of telecommuting, working from home with a computer terminal.

But, if the area continues to grow as it has in the past, these adaptations are unlikely to be enough, Carlson says. The county is suffering from a failure to plan for its unusual growth rate.

As a result, the already apparent trend of companies relocating in other parts of the Bay Area or other parts of the country will probably accelerate, he suggests.

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