Study: South Falls Short in Innovation, Education

Southern states are falling short when it comes to education and entrepreneurship, and the region "has not held its own economically since about 1980," according to a new study by the Southern Growth Policies Board.

The non-partisan public policy think tank, based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., surveyed 4,000 southerners during retreats, community forums, and statewide policy dialogs across 13 southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, as well as Puerto Rico.

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Math and science education, lack of awareness about entrepreneurship, computer literacy, and a shortage of innovation were cited as areas of concern from participants in the survey.

"The tone of the survey was to focus on how to build more economic opportunities," said Jim Clinton, executive director of the Southern Growth Policies Board. "We wanted to figure out how to create more businesses that are technologically oriented, and the survey results showed us what we are not doing well."

One way to achieve that is to recruit and retain talented entrepreneurs and business owners, according to Clinton. "The South has a significant reliance on 'branch plants,' not corporate headquarters or research-and-development plans," he said. "Opportunities for higher-paying jobs and profits are somewhere else."

The study recommended increasing the "value, volume, and velocity" of innovations that occur in the South, using technology as the primary tool to get there. Innovation was specifically defined as the application of new ideas to products and processes in the pursuit of profits, which the Southern Growth Policies Board said is essential to the South becoming a leader in innovation.
"If you look at the average wages for technologically intensive jobs, they are 85-95 percent higher than other positions," Clinton said. "If we want to get there, we must focus on science and math skills to have workers that are technologically savvy."

The study also called for a shift in culture toward valuing and celebrating knowledge. Internal and external perceptions must also change and can be achieved by using a branding strategy which would result in the world's perception of the South changing to viewing it as a vibrant dynamic and innovative region, according to the organization.

"Any region with a certain view of themselves is limited by that view," Clinton said.

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