Saltwater Batteries, Finland, and Pittsburgh’s Promising Advanced Industries
A small segment of the economy dubbed the “advanced industries” is a main source of economic power. Ranging from software publishing to ship building, the 50-industry segment is characterized by its deep involvement in technology research and development, and in STEM. But to keep it sustainable, the country needs to reinvest in STEM education.
Before you think a new report on the state of “advanced industries” in the United States might be a bit dry, two words for you: Saltwater. Batteries.
Pittsburgh’s Aquion Energy builds saltwater batteries that, although complicated, truly sound like the stuff of the future. The environmentally friendly battery uses nontoxic materials like saltwater to act as the electrolyte. The batteries can be used in large-scale energy systems like solar and wind power generators.
Aquion Energy is an example of what the new report from Brookings calls the “advanced industries.” Ranging from software publishing to ship building, the 50-industry segment of the economy is characterized by its deep involvement in technology research and development, and in STEM.
It’s not a huge industry, but for its relatively small size, the advanced industries pack a major “economic punch”:
“As of 2013, the nation’s 50 advanced industries employed 12.3 million US workers. That amounts to about 9 percent of total U.S. employment. And yet, even with this modest employment base, U.S. advanced industries produce $2.7 trillion in value added annually—17 percent of all U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).”
Advanced industries also provide high-quality economic opportunities for workers. Wages are rising sharply in the sector, and in 2013 the average advanced industries worker earned $90,000, nearly twice as much as the average worker outside the sector. But the researchers find the advanced industries are accessible, too: more than one-half of the sector’s workers possess less than a bachelor’s degree.
It’s not all great news, though. Yes, the advanced industries have grown, but the United States is still losing ground to other countries in several measures of innovation performance and capacity, like patents, for example. Plus, the report again finds that the United States is falling behind in producing STEM graduates. As a comparison, only 15 large US metro areas beat the global leader, Finland, in the share of STEM graduates as a proportion of the young adult population. Thirty-three large US metro areas fall behind Spain, which ranks 24th internationally.
So how do we sustain the advanced industries and keep the segment competitive and in the United States? Short-term workforce training is like a bandage. Instead, the report said sustaining the advanced industries long-term means increasing the STEM proficiency of Americans through the formal education system, starting early with universal prekindergarten.
It also means getting creative—forging partnerships, adjusting hiring requirements, and thinking outside the box about ways to widen the channels that encourage people to enter these industries and give young people more options.
That sounds a lot like what we’re doing here in Pittsburgh. Both in and out of schools, kids throughout the region are getting the opportunity to experience STEM long before college or even high school.
Just one recent example: The Allentown Learning & Engagement Center recently hosted the Digital Corps for the second time. The students learned to manipulate code, learn basic machine functions, and build their own robots. As Amber Rooke, education coordinator for the Brashear Association, recently described in a post, one student who struggles in schools lit up when working with the materials, jumping ahead without needing further directions.
Additionally, the Chevron Corporation is investing in the region’s STEM pipeline through its Appalachian Partnership Initiative with the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, RAND, and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. It is supporting graduate students at Carnegie Mellon, for example, in a game-based learning project with students at Elizabeth Forward Middle School. The team is designing a game to teach kids about solar energy. The game, which centers on a touch-sensitive globe the Carnegie Mellon students built, requires kids to figure out how to keep the lights on in their adopted city 24/7 using only solar power.
We hope opportunities to make, tinker, and explore will give kids not only a base of STEM skills to build on, but excitement for and engagement in learning what’s possible for them both in and out of STEM careers.
If there’s anywhere that can make this happen, it’s Pittsburgh. But don’t ask just us. The report’s video highlights Aquion but also calls out the Pittsburgh region as a spot that epitomizes a strong segment of advanced industries.
“Places like Pittsburgh with their sophisticated technology assets and experienced workforces epitomize the kind of synergies a city can provide to a new company,” said Mark Muro, Brookings senior fellow and director of policy for the Metropolitan Policy Program.
Those same synergies are helpful to leverage for education, too—not only companies. Plus, as we’ve known all along, Pittsburgh has a culture of collaboration, innovation, and getting down to work.
“Even though the steel industry wound down over 20 years ago, those people are still here. That heritage is still here,” said Aquion CEO, Jay Whitacre, in the video. “It’s amazing how much we benefit from that.”