Louisiana wants more tech jobs. Here’s what it can learn from Alabama’s tech success

Many states rely on tech jobs to boost their economies. Yet it’s easy to think that the technology has already passed Mississippi and Louisiana.

Only 4.2% of Louisiana’s workforce is employed in technology, the second-lowest number in the nation. Mississippi holds the last spot.

However, historian of technology Margaret O’Mara think it’s not too late. She recalls that 100 years ago, Silicon Valley was an agricultural region.

“It was the prune capital of America,” O’Mara, author of “Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley.” “So never say never.”

For proof that it can happen in the southern Gulf, take a look at Huntsville, Alabama, home to the second largest research park in the countryside. It houses the offices of biotechnology, cybersecurity and space travel companies. New technology companies are setting up shop, while existing ones are growing.

Experts say cities in Mississippi and Louisiana can achieve something similar by being strategic and investing in education and quality of life.

Play on the highlights of the city

Stephan Bisaha

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Gulf States Newsroom

Aerospace company Blue Origin opened a new rocket engine factory in Huntsville in 2020. December 3, 2021

Huntsville’s current technological success has taken off from its rocketry past.

In the 1950s and 1960s, research in Red Stone Arsenal military outpost led to the development of the Saturn V rocket, which made the first moon landing possible. Many engineers who worked on the project remained in Huntsville after the project ended.

These workers eventually developed the city’s defense and space sector, which is still thriving today with the arrival of companies like Blue Origin. The Jeff Bezos-owned company that sent the billionaire into space in 2021, opened a new rocket engine factory in Huntsville in 2020.

The good fortune of having neighbors like Blue Origin and Redstone Arsenal convinced Heather Bulk, co-founder of Special Aerospace Services, to buy land in the research park to construct a new building for his company.

“Being across the street and close – that’s powerful,” Bulk said. “It’s the most perfect place in America.”

This suggests that the easiest way to attract tech jobs is to already have tech jobs — a frustrating paradox for southern cities hoping to replicate Huntsville’s success.

But experts say it’s more about building technology around a city’s strengths, whatever those might be. While it’s easy to draw a straight line between developing rockets and building a tech industry, technology is spreading across industries today.

Ragib Hassan, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Alabama, says New Orleans’ entertainment sector is the kind of gem around which a tech industry can be built. Also, when it comes to luring startups away from the East and West Coast tech giants, cities have to choose a niche.

“Any startup that’s going to compete in the Bay Area or any other high-tech area is going to have to specialize,” Hasan said.

Build a Pipeline

To build a strong tech sector, it helps to have a solid tech education.

“Having this super-affordable public education at a very, very high standard of excellence, accessible to people from fairly modest backgrounds — that’s a key ingredient,” O’Mara said. “We don’t have enough anywhere in the United States.”

Huntsville businesses love HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology have educational outreach programs in the city and throughout the state to cultivate interest in science early on and develop a pool of workers.

“You take this individual, and we have several, who started by extracting DNA from strawberries in middle school,” Carter Wells, vice president of economic development at HudsonAlpha, said. “Now they work in one of the labs.”

To update itself in this department, the University of Mississippi began to build the Duff Center for Science and Technology Innovation in October. Private donors provided $26 million for the project, which will be the largest construction project ever on the main campus. Over the past decade, Ole Miss has also added 36,000 square feet to its chemistry facility, according to Provost Noel Wilkin.

“We view this as an important initiative for Mississippi State as well as the university,” Wilkin said.

A quarter of Ole Miss graduates are already earning STEM degrees. Still, that wasn’t enough to keep Mississippi at the bottom of the tech workforce. This means not only training the next generation of mathematicians and cybersecurity experts, but also making them want to stay.

‘The Sweet Stuff’

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Stephan Bisaha

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Gulf States Newsroom

Downtown Bridge Street in Huntsville is located near the Cummings Research Project and offers tech workers a nearby place to eat, shop and listen to artists. December 3, 2021

The Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce said about 15 years ago it had the same retention problem. Companies were attracting young talent from across the country for internships and entry-level programs, but they would leave for bigger cities.

The reason? They were bored.

So the city and the chamber worked to find out what would entertain and stimulate young tech talent and bring those features. Huntsville now has an outdoor mall with restaurants, a minor league baseball team, a food truck festival, and a skating rink in the winter. Lucia Cape, Head of Economic Development at Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce, said efforts to improve the city’s quality of life have worked and allowed more talent to stay.

“The soft stuff is almost harder because you can’t just put money on it and outsource it,” Cape said. “You have to be responsive and it has to be, you know, authentic.”

O’Mara agrees that quality of life is key to retaining and attracting the talent needed to drive innovation.

“Part of what’s made Silicon Valley and other places thrive isn’t just investing in technology or engineering,” O’Mara said. “But invest in social infrastructure, have strong public schools, have thriving neighborhoods.”

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana, and NPR.

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