Source: Knoxville News Sentinel | Tom Rogers | April 6, 2015.

East Tennessee’s economy is positioned to grow like it’s never grown before.

The Brookings Institution is writing a lot these days about advanced industries — those that invest heavily in R&D and whose workforces rely on highly educated workers. They’ve identified 50 such industries nationally, which combined employ 80 percent of the nation’s engineers, generate 85 percent of all U.S. patents, and support 39 million jobs — nearly a quarter of the U.S. total.

These advanced industries don’t merely create a lot of jobs. Because they’re committed to hiring highly educated workers in science, technology, engineering and math-related (STEM) fields, they’re creating jobs that pay nearly twice the national average.

Here’s the promising news for our region: Advanced industries tend to gather around larger metropolitan areas, and many are beginning to “cluster” to gain access to innovation resources, skilled workers and supplier networks. Our region has each of these key attributes for a successful advanced industries cluster, and the world is beginning to take notice.

First, our innovation assets are undeniable: Oak Ridge National Laboratory (my employer) is the nation’s largest science and energy lab, and its work in areas such as high performance computing and materials characterization is well recognized. More recently, collaborative work between ORNL and the University of Tennessee in areas such as 3D printing and carbon fiber composites have attracted a great deal of interest from industry. The U.S. Department of Energy just awarded $265 million for formation of the National Institute for Advance Composites Manufacturing Innovation, in which UT and ORNL have leadership roles.

Second, our region is making commitments to ensure we have highly skilled workers to support our innovation cluster. UT is on a march to become a Top 25 research university, hiring Governor’s Chairs in partnership with ORNL, building new engineering and science buildings, and establishing an innovation campus at Cherokee Farm. We will also benefit greatly from Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Drive to 55” initiative, which will make critically important postsecondary skills affordable for all.

Third, we’re well on our way to establishing a successful cluster of advanced industries in the region. Oak Ridge has established an industry consortium around carbon fiber composites that now has 60 members from around the world. Several of these firms have taken notice of the region’s assets and are locating operations here. DOE’s new advanced composites institute already has nearly 200 partners, and they will get a firsthand look at the region as the institute launches later this spring. Students are everywhere — going to school through our great community college system and at UT, and taking internships at ORNL at a record pace. Our economic development organizations are collaborating like never before, and industrial prospect activity — especially with companies focused on advanced materials and manufacturing — is at an all-time high.

To be clear, success with an advanced industries cluster is not a sure thing. Brookings points out that the United States as a whole is losing ground to other countries and that a national commitment to educational attainment, particularly in the STEM fields, is critically important.

But as long as our region remains committed to innovation, to developing a skilled workforce, and to welcoming both large and small companies from the U.S. and abroad, we have a real opportunity to build a cluster of advanced industries around manufacturing and materials that can provide a unique competitive advantage that will benefit all of us for many years to come.

Advanced Industries by the Numbers
35,210 Local jobs in advanced industries
59 Knoxville area’s rank among 100 metro areas for advanced industries
$5.7 billion Output from advanced industries in the area
$450 Minimum amount of R&D spending per worker for advanced industries
$72,140 Average annual earnings of workers in advanced industries
$236,000 Goods and services purchased by advanced industries annually, compared to $67,000 of other industries
Source: Brookings Institution

Tom Rogers is director of industrial and economic development partnerships at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a 1991 graduate of Leadership Knoxville, which works to build a stronger Knoxville by developing people and groups, leading to a greater community. Its programs include Leadership Knoxville, Introduction Knoxville, LK Scholars, Youth Leadership Knoxville and Facilitation services.