Source: The Oak Ridger | Special to The Oak Ridger by Sherry Browder | August 20, 2021
Tennessee is home to a diverse set of cultural touchstones, from the Grand Ole Opry to Memphis barbecue. Talked about less but vitally important to the state’s economic engine is Oak Ridge, created by the federal government to conduct research to bring an end to World War II. Once a Secret City, it’s now renown globally and stands as a point of pride. Since the 1940s the U.S. Department of Energy has grown its presence in Oak Ridge, in the process sustaining a diverse and highly skilled workforce, enabling small and large business to flourish, and contributing to major innovations that keep our country safe, our environment cleaner and our country on the forefront of scientific leadership.
Take it from someone who has spent three decades working on, in and around Oak Ridge and the numerous missions housed in the complex: DOE’s presence is an economic boon for the state. And I’m proud to have been a part of it.
In the early days, environmental issues were more of an afterthought than focus, until federally enacted laws intended to clean up water, air, and waste from hazardous materials were passed. In 1989, DOE created the Office of Environmental Restoration and Waste Management (later given its current name, the Office of Environmental Management) and hired me, a civil engineer. I was the first employee who transferrred into this brand new organization.
It was great to tell my parents that I had this exciting new job; less great to break it to them that I’d be living in Knoxville, not in Middle Tennessee, which had always been home. Little did I know then that not only had DOE handed me the opportunity of a lifetime, entrusting me with multi-million dollar budgets and oversight of projects implementing the new laws governing hazardous waste, but my mentors placed me squarely in the center of DOE missions that continue to contribute to Tennessee’s economic development, improve our environmental quality, advance science, and protect our country.
While DOE’s impact on my life cannot be measured or overstated, the agency’s impact on the state of Tennessee is not only quantifiable, it’s beyond expectation. Tennessee’s gross domestic product increased by approximately $4.2 billion as a result of overall spending by DOE and its contractors.
It’s hard to believe when I put on my 1989 hat that today, nearly 43,000 full-time jobs are supported by DOE activities. I may have been among the first in the modern era to work at DOE in an environmental capacity, but I will not be the last.
If you’re saying to yourself: this is great for people with a highly specified skill set, think again: DOE and its contractors procured approximately $940 million in various goods and services from Tennessee businesses in 2020, generating about $108 million in state and local taxes. A portion of these tax dollars enable the city of Oak Ridge to provide critical infrastructure to support DOE missions, as well as fund education and schools.
With support and encouragement from my father and the fathers of my two best friends, and ultimately, DOE, I became a civil engineer in an era when the profession wasn’t common for women. I especially chose civil as my discipline after a chat with my Dad, because “it was something I could see.” While transportation was my initial emphasis, environmental cleanup has become my heartfelt passion.
The entire Oak Ridge Reservation is a special place to me, but it’s more than that. Without a doubt, Oak Ridge provides worldwide benefit. And in doing so, has tremendous local impact. It’s time for Oak Ridge to claim its rightful place among Tennessee’s other icons.
Sherry Browder is president of Pro2Serve and is past chair of the East Tennessee Economic Council.