Study commission eyes strategic plan for science, technology industry

October 13, 2011

Reprinted from The Daily Tribune News - by Matt Shinall

A delegation of state legislators, government officials and industry leaders converged on Tellus Science Museum on Wednesday morning in the most recent public outreach forum gathering insight and opinions from experts in the science and technology industry.

Developed through legislation introduced by State Sen. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, the Science and Technology Study Commission hopes to formulate a strategic plan for fostering an atmosphere more conducive to tech companies. As technology changes, new challenges and demands arise creating impediments for business growth and recruitment.

"What we're trying to do, in short, is trying to increase the economy through science and technology jobs. We're trying to uncover what are the hurdles, what are the challenges we face here in Georgia of creating and maintaining high tech jobs," Loudermilk said. "We're actually pretty good at creating, but what we're seeing is that, at some point, businesses tend to get to a critical point and leave the state.

"The result will include a science and technology plan, but we will also be recommending policy changes to eliminate some of the hurdles."

The forum was divided into three subject heads with experts on the matter addressing the committee. Panelists discussed, in general, technology infrastructure, rural economic development and education. From these discussions, three key topics continued to crop up: workforce development, education and access to capital.

Despite a state unemployment rate above 10 percent, tech companies are often finding it difficult to fill open positions. According to Loudermilk, the commission has found some 5,000 current job openings in the science and technology industry.

Wednesday's meeting was the fourth of eight forums open to the public and regional industry representatives. Among those in attendance was John Scoville of the University System of Georgia's IT services. Both private and public sector employers are seeing difficulties in finding qualified applicants in the technology sector. Faced with state budget cuts, Scoville expressed his concerns as they relate to the University System.

"With the budget challenges, it puts a strain on us," Scoville said. "In the near future, if we do not find ways to address it, we could be facing a deficit in talent."

Representatives from the office of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle later spoke to options and recommendations in the way of education. Barrow and Ware counties have capitalized on Direct to Discovery, a program enabling interactive teleconferencing with professionals around the world.

Another initiative being utilized around the state is the incorporation of college and career academies with local school systems. College and career academies incorporate the rigors of a post-secondary education into high school courses through technical and vocational training. At these facilities, high school students, high school graduates and non-traditional students share a classroom in pursuit of a technical certification. This system allows high school students to enter the workforce at the career level upon graduation.

As related by Irene Munn of the Lieutenant Governor's Office, students gain relevant knowledge through hands-on learning experience at college and career academies -- "relevance in the classroom, is not a field trip," she said. Munn added that the transition to, or addition of, college and career academies should not be initiated by the state but by the community and tailored to the specific workforce needs in cooperation with local industry.

"It's not meant for everybody, it's a model that definitely works and makes sense," Munn said. "The timing has to be right. If the technical college needs a new building, why not partner with the high school to engage together? If there's money available for a high school, lets make sure the technical college is included."

Information on these topics and others, including the expansion of bandwidth capabilities statewide, will go forward in the creation of a plan guiding lawmakers to aid the growing technology sector.

The Technology Association of Georgia spearheaded the movement to urge legislators in the development of the study commission and has participated in the organization of public forums across the state. If created, the strategic plan would put Georgia "ahead of the curve," said TAG Public Relations Director Becky Biggs.

"The ultimate goal is to create a strategic plan for Science and Technology for Georgia and the idea of that is to support our technology community," Biggs said. "We have about 13,000 technology companies in the state of Georgia and there are about 250,000 technology jobs, so we think it's a really important industry for Georgia."

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