Panel to develop state's tech vision

August 12, 2011

Technology Quarterly
Reprinted from Atlanta Business Chronicle - by Randy Southerland, Contributing Writer

In the 1990s Atlanta was well on its way to becoming a technology mecca—until the bubble burst. A decade later state leaders are pinning their hopes for recovery from the Great Recession on a resurgence in fields such as health-care IT, information security and financial technology. Figuring out just how to do that is the job of a newly authorized committee now touring the state, talking to tech leaders and patching together a strategic plan for making Georgia competitive again.

“We needed to have a strategic vision as a state and [figure out] what the state needs to do, quit doing or do better to attract more high-tech business,” said state Sen. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, co-chairman of the Science and Technology Strategic Initiative Joint Study Commission, a panel created by the General Assembly this year.

The 12-member commission is holding a series of hearings around the state to gather input from science and technology professionals on barriers to attracting new high-tech companies to the state or expanding those already here, according to Loudermilk, who also chairs the Senate Science and Technology Committee.

“We’re trying to see where Georgia is in relation to other states and as far as the impact that we can have on developing businesses in so many different areas of science and technology,” said state Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta, the commission’s co-chair.

The commission hopes to find ways to help a tech sector that has been sputtering lately. Between 2008 and 2009, the state lost 12,395 tech jobs as employment fell from 257,194 to 244,799, according to the Technology Association of Georgia (TAG). Even with these losses many companies are having a hard time filling open slots due to a lack of qualified applicants.

“Right now in the tech space we’ve identified 5,300 jobs that are open,” said TAG President and CEO Tino Mantella, a member of the commission. “There’s a gap between the needs that the company has and what the universities and colleges are producing at least from the standpoint of a knowledge awareness base.”

Along with a shortage of students going into fields such as science, technology and engineering, the group will be looking at other needs, such as access to capital, that has prompted some companies to leave the state.

“Emerging companies have trouble getting funding and other states are offering better opportunities,” Mantella said. “We’re still the only state in the nation that doesn’t allow pension fund money to be used for alternative investments.”

While the sector faces problems, in many ways it is still strong. Georgia led the nation in tech growth the last four years. In 2009, the state’s companies grew by 7 percent compared with just 1.9 percent nationally. In 2010 the state was down to just 1 percent growth, compared with 0.6 percent nationally, according to TAG.

“[Tech jobs] have a high impact on the local economy because of lower cost to bring those businesses in, but also they generally pay $30,000 more per employee per year than the typical industrial company,” Loudermilk said.

The primary goal for the commission—which expires on Jan. 9, 2012—is to come up with a series of legislative proposals for the General Assembly.

“What we want to achieve is that at the end of the day we want to be attracting jobs to Georgia’s marketplace,” said Calvin Rhodes, executive director of the Georgia Technology Authority and the state’s chief information officer, who is a commission member. “Our ultimate goal is to do whatever we can to promote Georgia, as well as make sure it’s a good place for people to start a business.”

Most states in the Southeast have some type of a technology plan or make investments in young and growing companies, Mantella said. “The technology or science base has led states like Texas and others to get a jump-start in terms of being able to recruit and grow businesses,” he said. “Once we have that recognition and gather data from around the state, we’ll be able to make recommendations in respect to what has to happen.”

The first hearing was hosted by tech giant Cisco and featured testimony from Microsoft, as well as smaller tech companies. “We bring them in and ask what’s good and what’s bad about the state of Georgia and about doing your business here,” Loudermilk said. “Why did you start here and what might be inhibiting you from growing? We’re really open to ideas.”

While the first two hearings were staged in Atlanta, the commission will be getting out into the rest of the state to hear from companies and officials in places such as Savannah, Columbus and Cartersville.

“We are creating an inventory of what our state has to offer and how we can be more appealing and make opportunities for companies to come into the state and be successful,” Sims said. “We want to be sure we have a workforce and we know what companies are looking for in terms of that workforce. Are we training and educating people in the right direction? Finding an employee might be an easy thing, but if you’re a company that specializes in IT then we may not be ready for you.”

The commission will also be looking at how needs differ between sectors and sizes of businesses.

“We did a decision-maker survey last year at TAG of over 100 decision-makers and they told us 70 percent would be hiring this year, which bucks a trend in some industries,” Mantella said. “They also broke down by smaller companies saying there was a need for capital. Midsize companies said there was need for tax breaks and larger companies said we had to do something about the traffic.” The commission is doing most of its work through staff contributions from state agencies, institutions and nonprofits including TAG and Georgia Tech.