Mid-Missouri looks to lure new job base

Technology, research seen as the economic bases for the future.
Sunday, November 30, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:34 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Faced with the loss of hundreds of manufacturing jobs, state and local economic development experts want to take mid-Missouri’s economy in a new direction.

The plan is to replace traditional industries that manufacture products such as bricks and electronic circuitry with firms that specialize in biological research and computer components. Officials say that a shift toward biotechnology and high-tech manufacturing would better serve the area because they create higher-paying jobs and attract better-educated workers.

Blue-collar workers made an average of $14.51 an hour in 2002, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while computer systems workers made $30.98 an hour and biological scientists made $28.07 an hour.

The need for a highly educated workforce offers some protection against the loss of these jobs to overseas markets, said David Meyer, head of the local arm of the state’s Department of Workforce Development.

“Most foreign countries may have the workers to produce toasters,” Meyer said. “But few of them have the workers to make things like computer chips.”

Bob Baugh, director of the Industrial Union Council of the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C., agrees that high-tech is a good strategy for Missouri, which has lost 10 percent of its manufacturing base since 2000. Baugh said he expects a continued decline in traditional manufacturing sectors, such as automobiles, steel and machine tools, as countries such as China and Japan actively target those industries to provide jobs for their workers.

The advantages of the new job-creation strategy are clear to many, and Meyer and others in his department say they think it is possible that mid-Missouri can become a high-tech hotbed like California’s Silicon Valley. Mid-Missouri has all the components that have allowed other areas to blossom into tech corridors, Meyer said, including a major research university, a quality workforce and a reputation as one of the nation’s best places to live. Moreover, strong life sciences research, in areas such as cancer, proteins, genetics and experimental drugs, is key to attracting biotechnology firms, which are the hottest tickets in the economic development world.

Money to retrain workers and additional investment in facilities such as MU’s soon-to-be completed Life Sciences Research Center are needed to provide the spark, Meyer said.

However, with little history of high-tech and biotechnological job creation, Missouri could find itself behind the curve. A 2002 survey by The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, found that 83 percent of state economic development officials listed biotechnology as one of their top two development goals. The survey suggests that competition for expanded biotechnology opportunities will be fierce and that other states might have significant advantages over mid-Missouri simply because they got there first.

Ten large companies dominate the biotechnology industry, the survey said, and three of four biotechnology companies are located in just nine metropolitan areas. No city in Missouri made the list, which identified Boston and San Francisco as the industry leaders.

Joseph Haslag, director of the Economic and Policy and Research Center at MU, also doubts that mid-Missouri could ever become a high-tech corridor in the mold of Austin, Texas, or the Research Triangle in North Carolina. For one thing, Haslag said, MU has a long way to go before it can compare itself to institutions such as Stanford and the University of California-Berkeley in Silicon Valley and the University of Texas-Austin.

“High-tech corridors do not tend to rise because of state planning,” Haslag said. “They tend to rise in locations that are both attractive physically and have world-class research universities.”

Funding for research hasn’t been the problem. MU touts itself as the fastest-growing university in the country in terms of research grants, receiving $166 million in 2003, compared with $141.7 million in 2002. Life sciences research has been particularly strong: The university received more grants than such powerhouses as Yale, Stanford, Harvard and Washington University in St. Louis, according to MU’s Web site.

The problem has been converting that research into viable entrepreneurial ventures, said Thomas Sharp, director of the Office of Technology and Special Projects.

The OTSP was created in 1999 to transform research from MU’s laboratories into commercial opportunities. For example, the OTSP will negotiate with corporations to license technological innovations, with royalties earned by both the professor and the university. If an idea has enough commercial potential, Sharp said, a new business could be formed around it. A recent example is a blue light-emitting diode created by an MU professor, which led to the creation of a company called MOXtronics

“This is an activity that requires a lot of patience,” Sharp said. “The manufacturing jobs will emerge later from the need to make these things, but now we are just focusing on starting new businesses.”

Sharp and the OTSP hope to create an “incubator” in the mid-Missouri area that consults with new businesses during their first few months in operation. With the incubator’s help, new businesses would be inclined to stay in mid-Missouri, Sharp said, thus helping to bring more high-tech and biotechnology jobs to the local economy.

“It’s not a situation where you start a new multimillion-dollar company,” Sharp said, “but it’s a start.”

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