Higher Education As an Economic Development Tool

Judging by what I saw on social media today, it looks like Georgia’s college students are heading back to class this week. The new professors that the University of Georgia hired to teach them toured the state recently, and found out that in addition to teaching, they are now helping with the Peach State’s economic development efforts.

Walter Jones has the story in the Augusta Chronicle:

The faculty is touring the state as a way to familiarize those new to Georgia and to help all of them understand the ties between academia and business.

“In the state of Georgia, you are now, if you haven’t been before, in the economic-development business,” said Gretchen Corbin, the commissioner of community affairs.

She explained that often in talking with industrial prospects the companies will need specialized information, requiring recruiters to seek advice from microbiologists, chemistry researchers and other professors whose specialty might seem more basic science than business.

The state’s economic development and workforce development divisions, which combined in April, are already working with the state’s technical colleges to provide skilled employees in career fields including aerospace, healthcare and even film and movies. In many of these areas, there is a shortage of people qualified to do the jobs.

Extending the economic development effort to the state’s four year colleges makes sense. Many college professors see their mission as helping students gain knowledge as opposed to preparing them for a career. And frequently, this has led to a newly minted college graduate with a degree in a field which doesn’t offer many job prospects, while being burdened with student loans that will need to be repaid.

While the Board of Regents understands the relationship between education and economic development, by working more closely with professors and teaching assistants, students will better be able to judge which fields of study offer the best career opportunities.

Students pursuing post-doctoral degrees are a great illustration of how the workforce development effort can help both students and businesses. Many of those working in these programs expect to become professors themselves once they graduate, or to do academic research in their chosen fields. that’s where they and their professors are the most comfortable. The problem is that academia can only provide jobs for about 10% of those graduates.

The private sector, especially in areas such as biotechnology and computer science that invest in research and development, can provide jobs for those graduates, and may even decide to relocate to or expand their operations in Georgia because of the skilled workforce the state can provide.