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Job Market

Local entities strive to grow Memphis economy, some with sunflowers.



To all my friends out there looking for work, I have some advice: Hold on. That, and write thank-you notes.

Reid Dulberger, manager of Memphis' economic development program, says that once the recession is over, Memphis will have a talent shortage.

"We're going to be in a position much like the late '90s," he says. "Before the tech bubble burst, if you were in information technology, you wrote your own ticket. I don't know if the market will swing that dramatically, but it will swing in that direction."

As part of the Coalition for Livable Communities' latest Pizza with the Planners sessions, Dulberger spoke about local economic development. I know it's little comfort for those who have been laid off and, at this point, might seem unrealistic, but Dulberger says it's a numbers game.

The eventual retirement of baby boomers will leave jobs open, especially in areas such as engineering where that generation is currently overrepresented. And while the United States is a magnet for the world's intellectual capital, its pull is weakening.

"After 9/11, as a country, we decided to make it more difficult for foreign-born students to stay," Dulberger says. "The growth of countries such as India and China means when those students come to the United States, they're more inclined to go home now. Their home countries have more to offer than they did in the past."

While cities have long competed for corporations, in recent years, cities have been competing for a skilled workforce. Especially in places such as Memphis that suffer from so-called brain drain.

As such, almost anything can be considered economic development: crime prevention, education, enhancing area amenities.

"The competition for talent isn't going to be won or lost this year or next year," Dulberger says. "We should assume that unless the demographics change dramatically, there is going to be a shortage of skilled labor in this country."

Memphis can either grow its own talent or try to import it. Just like any other natural resource.

While we're waiting for the recession to end, the University of Memphis and the Memphis Bioworks Foundation are two entities helping to grow local opportunities.

Under the guidance of Kevin Boggs, U of M's director of technology transfer and research development, the university has granted two intellectual property licenses in the last year.

One is for Fast Pellets, a product that could be used on the battlefield to stop bleeding or in other trauma situations where medical help is not readily available. The invention is licensed to a company in Germantown and is currently under review by the FDA.

The other is software-testing material licensed to a company based in Chicago to use in India.

As university researchers invent things that can be used in commercial products, one of the challenges is keeping those opportunities in the local community.

"Not many cities have the critical mass of people with experience in small- to mid-sized tech companies that Boston, San Diego, and San Francisco do," Boggs says. "If you have a company that's starting to grow, they are going to need specialized folks. If the venture capitalists think moving to Austin will make the company successful, they'll demand that. We have to show that we can bring in the right kind of people."

The Bioworks Foundation recently sponsored a five-state, 98-county study that found that biomass is the region's primary renewable asset.

"The best chance we have to produce jobs is when the region has something unique and something that gives us a competitive advantage," says Steve Bares, president and executive director of the foundation.

Biomass are agricultural crops and trees that can replace petroleum in products such as fuels, chemicals, and other materials. The combination of fertile farmland, as well as logistics infrastructure and chemical processing plants, makes biomass a natural fit for Memphis and the surrounding area.

Other green technologies such as wind, solar, and geothermal power only produce energy — and are better suited to other parts of the country. Biomass can produce energy, but it can also be used in other products.

"This is not about urban gardening," Bares says. "This is about growing raw plant material and bringing it to an urban center."

Sunflowers, for instance, can be used to produce oil, which can then be used as a lubricant.

"These are green jobs," Bares says. "What we're talking about is local agriculture, adaptive re-use of chemical processing facilities, and bringing people back to work. It's a great opportunity for the urban center and for rural areas."

As those things are developed, hopefully the local economy will also grow into its own.

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