The New Boomtowns
North Carolina Research Triangle

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center is one of many recruiting organizations located in the heart of Research Triangle Park.  The center is a private, nonprofit corporation dedicated to recruiting big-name biotech firms to North Carolina, attracting outstanding faculty members to the state's universities, and solving tough public policy issues.
Bill Little remembers the days when North Carolina was known just for tobacco, textiles, and furniture. In the 1950s, the state ranked at the bottom of the country in per capita income and its economy grew as slowly and predictably as the summer crop season. Little, then a chemistry professor at the University of North Carolina, knew that the state needed to attract high-paying, quality jobs to keep the smart students from fleeing after graduation. "We had three universities producing doctoral-level scientists but there wasn't any place for them in North Carolina to work," he recalls.

Little became one of the faculty's "traveling salesmen" who met with companies and tried to persuade them to relocate research in a new park situated between UNC in Chapel Hill, Duke University in Durham, and North Carolina State in Raleigh. So at the same time Silicon Valley began its ascent, town elders and politicians contributed $1.5 million to build a 4,000 acre park where some farms and pine forests stood. Still, when North Carolina's Research Triangle Park opened its doors in 1958, Little and others weren't sure whether any private companies would move there.

Today, Little's most optimistic expectations have been surpassed. About 120 companies have operations in the park, employing about 44,000 people. Among the tenants are such blue-chip firms as IBM (which employs 13,000 people), Nortel, Glaxo Wellcome, Ericsson, and Cisco. Even foreign companies have moved operations to the triangle, creating 5,600 jobs. And most of these jobs are financially rewarding. The median family income in the area is $52,000 a year, which is about $12,000 more than the state's average. The triangle's efforts have lifted the state per capita income ranking to 31st. Between 1991 and 1998, companies made $1.9 billion of investments in plant and equipment in the three county triangle region.

How did North Carolina pull it off? The park's first tenant was the Research Triangle Institute, a consortium of the three universities that would compete for research contracts. Little and others hoped that companies would take advantage of the chance to work alongside esteemed faculty members from the three schools. Today, more than 1,700 researchers work at the institute in 115 disciplines, including chemistry, engineering, and life sciences. Some recent projects include discovering a way to treat cocaine addiction, making air travel safer by creating models to predict air turbulence, and inventing low-power semiconductors through new circuitry. Last year was the institute's best ever, with $206.6 million in revenues from research contracts.

The presence of the institute along with the universities lured the companies. Nearly 90 percent of the companies at the research park have formal or informal ties with the universities, and the relationships go beyond just hiring of graduates as employees. Nearly 400 executives are adjunct faculty members at the universities and 460 professors had consulting relationships at the park in 1998. "If we didn't have three universities, we wouldn't have the park," says Jim Roberson, president of the Research Triangle Park.

So in contrast to San Diego's nurturing of home-grown entrepreneurs through technology transfer, North Carolina set up a climate to attract facilities instead. "North Carolina doesn't have an incubator but is an area friendly to corporations for setting up facilities and developing cooperative deals with the universities," says the author Lampe. "Before you knew it, some interesting high tech started to happen."

Northern Virginia

Beyond the act of research and invention, universities also play a vital role in upgrading the skills of the workforce. In many high-tech growth centers, knowledge is increasing so quickly that a four-year education can't hope to contain it all. So industry is leaning on local schools to retrain its workers and make sure they acquire the new skills to develop their careers and take on more responsibilities. Such exchanges also work wonders for faculty members, who get insights into the latest problems that industry is tackling.

While technology firms account for only five percent of Northern Virginia's job base, they represent 20.5 percent of all private-sector employment and a third of all earnings. In fact, Northern Virginia is second only to Silicon Valley in its concentration of information technology firms, and such jobs have value beyond their numbers. A study by Roy L. Pearson, director of the Bureau of Business Research at the College of William and Mary, estimates that every tech job in Northern Virginia generates nearly one additional job in other sectors. His model shows that $10,000 of technology sector wages results in more than $7,100 wages in other sectors.

Continuing education courses at George Mason University are helping to meet the region's strong demand for skilled workers.  Many of the school's information technology classes are offered at night so that students can work during the day.

But while two thirds of the state's job growth in the mid 1990s was in technology industries, the sector is growing too fast to fulfill the ravenous demand for tech workers; there are more than 20,000 vacancies in information technology jobs alone in the region. Enter George Mason. The university's school of information technology was opened in 1985 and soon became the first engineering school in the nation to offer a doctorate in information technology.

To help meet the region's demand for workers, the day-to-day mission of the university has changed. No longer does a student graduate in four years. The average is between five and six years, and the average age of a student is now around 26. That's because Mason has combined scholarships and internships that pair top students with companies that pay their tuition in exchange for labor. This encourages students to work and finish college later.

So that students can work during the day, many of Mason's IT and engineering classes are offered at night. "The companies want students and this push of technology is taking place in Internet time, far beyond our ability to track it in universities," says Lloyd Griffiths, dean of Mason's school of information technology and engineering. "How do we keep up? We can't buy the software or hardware quick enough. The only way is empowerment through knowledge. Students go get jobs, bring it back to classroom, and turn faculty members into coaches."

Griffiths has also instituted other programs for continuing education. Business students can get a minor in information technology at the school and take classes to complement their management lessons. And a new degree called an Engineers Degree is an option for the school's 300 doctoral students who want to learn from the course work but don't see the need to write a thesis. "We end up blurring the boundaries between student and worker," says Griffiths. "Our students are productive before they graduate, but they also know that there are more things to learn and we have our continuing education part built in."

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