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Measuring Tech in the Triangle
A News & Observer analysis of local economic indicators for the region’s tech economy.
“Education is the equalizer of life,” former Cisco Systems CEO John T. Chambers told a crowd of business leaders in Raleigh this week.
It’s the surest path of upward mobility not just for an individual but for a region as well, said Chambers, who talked about his rise from a boyhood in West Virginia to leading one of the largest technology companies in the world.
He pointed to his home state as a lesson everyone should take to heart. West Virginia, he said, once had the largest concentration of millionaires in the world and a thriving employment base working in the coal industry. But the state didn’t prepare for the future — a day when the decline of coal made West Virginia one of the most economically depressed places in the United States.
That could happen to any region, he said, through disruption by new technologies — displacing millions of workers across the retail and manufacturing industries. “Fifty percent of the companies here in this room won’t exist in a decade,” he warned the crowd.
“You’ve got to create jobs where the future will be,” he said. And you have to educate the next generation of workers to be ready for those jobs.
While North Carolina is seeing growth in the areas of education that experts believe will be critical for a future economy, in many ways the state is still trailing the country as a whole.
But when you narrow the scope, the Research Triangle region is perhaps one of the best examples of the power that education and science can have on a local economy, becoming one of the leading technology hubs in the nation in recent years.
This story is part of a News & Observer reporting project aimed at monitoring the health of the Triangle’s tech ecosystem. In a survey sent to dozens of people in the local tech industry, the N&O asked what important measuring points matter the most for the ongoing success of the region. We’ll be reporting on individual indicators in this four-part series, then will revisit all of them regularly going forward.
One issue was the development of a talented workforce ready to fill the thousands of jobs being created in the Triangle. Everyday business leaders and politicians cite a talent gap that leaves too many jobs unfilled — jobs that pay well and supercharge the economy.
Education and science
The surest path to boosting North Carolina’s innovation economy can be found in just two areas, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce research.
“Educational attainment, from the high school level to Ph.Ds, is a composite measure of how strong your economy is,” said John Hardin, executive director of the N.C. Board of Science, Technology & Innovation. Hardin advises the state’s Commerce Department on economic development, specifically when it comes to preparing for the innovation economy of the future.
“It matters to the extent to which your workforce is in science and engineering occupations,” he said. “Those tend to pay more and have a bigger multiplier effect” on creating more jobs.
In its report to the Commerce Department in 2017, Hardin’s board noted that nearly half of the jobs being created in the state now require some post-secondary education — many in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. That’s going to create a high barrier to employment for many unprepared young adults and existing workers, Hardin said, which would put pressure on the state’s universities and community colleges to produce talent.
North Carolina as a whole ranks 25th among all states in educational attainment, trailing many of what the Commerce Department refers to as comparison states for the innovation economy,. Those include California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Washington and Virginia.
However, while it trails in overall education, North Carolina ranks 15th in the nation for the percentage — 33.9% — of higher education degrees in science, engineering and technology fields. But that number also trails the Commerce Department’s comparison states.
Yet, only 4.5% of the state’s workforce works in science and engineering occupations, good for 20th in the country and behind the U.S. average of 4.7%.
Best in the state
While the state as a whole may drag behind the national average, the Triangle is in a different stratosphere altogether, highlighting the urban-rural divide in the state.
“The Triangle has the most well-developed innovation ecosystem in the state,” Hardin said. But that happened over “a long time period.”
“If you go back to the late 1950s, that is when the Research Triangle Park was officially formed,” he noted, “back then the Triangle was not the powerhouse it is now.”
It took the work of the region’s universities and the technology business spinning out of RTP — and decades later the downtown areas of the Triangle — to create the current, thriving technology ecosystem. If any area in North Carolina is ready for the rigors of a future economy, it should be the Triangle. Last year, Raleigh was one of 20 finalists for Amazon’s HQ2 and the region’s officials are still hoping to draw Apple here for a future expansion.
Since the start of the decade, the Triangle has been one of the fastest-growing technology hubs in the country. In September alone, there were 12,060 job postings in the Triangle for information and technology jobs — which was 45.5% of all the information and technology jobs posted in the entire state that month, according to the N.C. Tech Association.
The Triangle currently ranks as the 10th strongest area for tech talent in North America, according to an annual ranking by commercial real estate firm CBRE. And the Triangle sports the eighth best educational attainment, with 50.3% of residents 25 years or older having a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Tech jobs now make up 6.5% of all jobs in the Triangle, the fifth-highest share in the U.S., trailing only places like San Francisco; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; and Austin, Texas.
And the number is expected to continue growing.
At N.C. State University, adjacent to downtown Raleigh, the number of STEM graduates continues to increase. From 2010 to 2019, the number of students graduating each year with a STEM-related degree at N.C. State increased by 55.9%, from 3,489 to 5,441 degrees.
And STEM degrees now make up 54% of degrees awarded in 2019 at N.C. State, the state’s top producer of STEM graduates, up from 46% in 2010.
North Carolina also outperforms the nation as it pertains to the in-migration of in attracting college-educated adults from other states. But those highly educated newcomers to the state are only going to a handful of counties, according to data compiled by the state’s Commerce Department.
And the Triangle happens to be one of the biggest magnets for these educated workers. Just two counties combined for 38% of the state’s in-migrants with a bachelor’s degree: Mecklenburg (20.5%) and Wake (17.4%).
Durham County — the second largest county in the Triangle — attracted the third largest number, bringing in 7.2% of those in-migrants. No other county broke 5% of the total.
If the state wants to continue its upward trajectory, however, the growth needs to become more broad-based and diverse to ensure everyone is prepared for the new American economy in the decades to come.
“This transition will happen only if a larger share of the state’s population has the education [and] training ... needed to start, grow, attract, and sustain companies and other organizations that are innovative,” N.C. Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland said in a letter to the state.
This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate