Jim Clinton speaks in Dickensian terms about the prospects for a high-tech flowering in the Deep South. The motivation for change and progress is strong, but "It's also a scary time," said Clinton, executive director of Southern Growth Policies Board, an economic development think tank in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
"If we don't make good decisions throughout the South we certainly run the risk of falling further behind," Clinton said. "It's hard to have good quality of life if you don't have good economic opportunities. Certainly, it's pretty well-known at this point that wherever you look in the South there is a shortage of science and engineering talent. That's an ongoing concern."
Part of the problem which Georgia, North Carolina, Florida and Virginia have deftly avoided is that most states in the region aren't headquarters for major companies. "The transition from agriculture to manufacturing was accomplished primarily through branch plants," Clinton said, which don't offer the same rich mine for spin-offs. Nor is the region traditionally known for its roster of national labs and research universities. "The South remains behind the curve in the amount of research and development dollars pouring," Clinton said.
All of which cries out for a comprehensive strategy to promote economic change, change with a high-tech accent, Clinton said. "A lot of people point to Research Triangle Park as a success story for quick growth, but it's 40 years old. A lot of investments that are paying off in Georgia have been there since the early '80s. We like the idea of a quick fix and this is not something where you can get a quick fix."
Strategies include incentives to lure companies and skilled workers, he said, but also a more fundamental effort to bolster science and technology education in the region's elementary and secondary schools.
Mississippi takes an aggressive approach to making itself competitive. Don Meiners is interim president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Technology Development in Jackson, and vice chairman of Mississippi Technology Inc. (MTI), a new nonprofit partnership to promote high-tech growth in the state. While MTI has an impressive list of members including corporate magnates and politicians its greatest asset is its focus, Meiners said. In the past, "we had a lot of people trying to do the right things, but we didn't have a unified coordination. We will be sort of like the orchestra leader for technology in Mississippi."
MTI's mission includes hatching technology parks and incubators. The group focuses particular attention on Jackson, the capital, which has already amassed some 150 communications and IT firms or related businesses, led by WorldCom, which is based there.
The southern lip is home to the Stennis Space Center. That facility specializes in remote sensing, and MTI hopes it will inspire startups.
MTI is also homing in on recruiting and retaining skilled labor. "We've not done a good job of trying to keep our technical graduates in the state. We're going to intensify our efforts to do that," Meiners said. "You've got to keep your own and then go after somebody else's, too."
Advanced Microelectronics in Ridgeland has an opening for a digital design engineer. Applicants should have a BSEE, MSEE or CS degree. For the design, layout, simulation and characterization of full-custom and semi-custom digital CMOS integrated circuits, candidates must design and layout at the transistor level and have experience with Sun or equivalent workstations and state-of-the-art CAD tools.
In Laurel, Howard Industries has slots for software engineers, including a programmer who knows "basic O/S structures and methodologies, network communications, Windows device drivers and Windows scripting." Candidates should have two years' education in computer programming and two years' experience in some of these: C++, Visual Basic, HTML, MS ASP, XML, Java, Windows Foundation Classes, SQL database access, low-level network communications and assembly language.
Finally, Cypress Semiconductor is looking for chip engineers for its Starkeville facility. The company has vacancies for a staff design engineer, a CAD engineer and design engineers in analog. Applicants for the last position should have an MSEE and two or more years of circuit design experience specializing in analog and mixed-signal ICs.