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Investment in engineering could reap massive economic benefits

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A team of engineering students and a professor, working in the laboratory, conduct several experiments that result in the discovery that prompts a new idea. The concept advances, is tested and re-tested and results in a product that provides a solution, a simplification or an acceleration. After testing, the product moves out to the marketplace and generates demand. Demand leads to the start of a company, perhaps on a shoestring or fueled by a small group of angel investors.

The start-up company refines and advances. It hires employees – not just engineers, but salespeople, marketers, finance professionals, administrative staff. Its need for certain services, vendors and infrastructure creates a supply chain. Those businesses flourish and hire more people. Momentum builds.

Michael Crow

Michael Crow

At Arizona State University’s Fulton Schools of Engineering, this scenario happens again and again. It fuels economic growth and activity – and spawns high-value, high wage jobs. Two examples of this are:

Zero Mass Water, a spin out company created by ASU Fulton Schools professor Cody Friesen that creates drinking water out of air and sunlight using solar-powered hydro panels. The foundational work for the company’s SOURCE hydro panels was conducted at ASU. The company now employs 91 people.

Benchmark Electronics, a company that provides technology solutions for medial, aerospace, industrial, telecommunications and IoT fields, moved its headquarters to Arizona because of the unique relationship it has built with the Fulton Schools and the proximity/access to a growing number of career-ready engineering graduates entering the workforce from ASU. Benchmark has 3,766 employees.

There is no doubt – these success stories can happen more frequently and at greater scale. With the New Economy, there is a growing market in need of engineers. We are confident, with the help of a public investment for FY 2021 proposed to the Arizona Legislature by the Arizona Board of Regents, engineers produced at ASU can help move the entire state economy in businesses of all disciplines, shapes and sizes.

This is the future – a new range of technologies that combine the physical, digital and biological worlds and that will impact all disciplines, industries and economies. Advancements in artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D technology, genetics, and biotechnology are complementing and magnifying one another and are changing the way we live.

The ripple effect of these disruptive technologies will be more profound and all-encompassing than anything humanity has ever experienced. Smart systems – homes, factories, farms, energy grids, or cities – will tackle problems from supply chain management to weather extremes. The rise in the sharing economy will allow for the monetization of everything from houses to cars, and even time. Big data will help businesses make smarter decisions faster – allowing them to take advantage of opportunities the moment they arise.

The examples are both ordinary – drones delivering FedEx packages to your doorstep – and extraordinary – solar panels extracting drinking water from thin air.

Some jobs are threatened by redundancy or obsoletion and others are poised for adaptation and certain growth. Nearly all occupations will be impacted by technology and will require New Economy skill proficiency requiring the reskilling or upskilling of many, many people in the workforce. To close the gap, Arizona State University is committed to rethinking workforce preparation; we are moving toward a lifelong learning approach – the universal learner – that ensures all individuals, regardless of age or socioeconomic background, have the knowledge and skills necessary to compete successfully in the workforce of the 21st century.

The state of Arizona, now recovered from the negative impact and long return to health from the impact of the 2008 recession, is in an enviable position to take advantage of this wave of change. While the state economy has stabilized, this is not the time to feel satisfied and relax. It is a moment in time where we can make investments that result in a stronger, more resilient economy for the long term that ensures we are not vulnerable to the economic volatility that defined the last decade.

Should the governor and the Arizona Legislature choose to make the kind of investment in engineering at ASU proposed by ABOR, the impact will be enormous and will extend far beyond the university and those who employ engineers. It will impact the economy favorably across the board.

There is a good reason to place our faith in engineers. They are designers. They take what hasn’t been done yet and turn imagination into something real. They are, in their own way, artists who see things most of us do not see and who have creative talents not everyone is so fortunate to possess.

As a result, engineers are the backbone of a range of industries – and thus, producing more is a good investment. They are the core of an innovation-centered economy, a catalyst to develop new things that change the world and that will make Arizona a globally competitive state for decades to come.

— This is the second in a three-part series from ASU President Michael M. Crow about the Arizona Board of Regents New Economy Initiative, a public investment proposal for the state’s FY 2021 budget. Coming next: What’s in it for me? The return on investing in ASU engineering.

One comment

  1. Restructure the Arizona University System to provide greater accessibility, affordability, and accountability to a public university education for many more Arizonans:

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