Sep 01 2017

How Huntsville Has Become a Top U.S. STEM Center

Thanks to public-private partnerships and local government collaboration, Huntsville, Ala., ranks No. 1 in job growth in the tech industry.

Looking for a job in the tech sector? The hottest job market may not be in Silicon Valley. Look instead to Huntsville, Ala., which is seeing huge economic growth bolstered by public-private partnerships and a mayor that sees tech as the key to a solid economy.

After looking at over 8 million active tech jobs across the United States, a recent study by ZipRecruiter and Payscale ranked Huntsville at the top of the list for year-over-year job growth in the technology industry, with a growth rate of 309 percent. Thousand Oaks, Calif.; Phoenix; Albany, N.Y.; and Kansas City, Mo., round out the top five in the list of 20.

SIGN UP: Get more news from the StateTech newsletter in your inbox every two weeks

Enabling an Economy from Space to STEM

If you think the change is coming out of nowhere, you’re wrong. Bolstered by growth in several industries that are supported and led by the local government, Huntsville has been a dark horse in the tech industry for the past few years, according to Cathy Barrera, chief economic adviser for the online jobs platform ZipRecruiter.

“Compared to more well-known hubs like Silicon Valley, the city’s biggest edge lies both in its relatively low cost of living and high average salaries in tech jobs,” she says. “Huntsville has also been noted as one of the best places for engineers in particular, which is likely in part due to the fact that NASA boasts a large presence in the city. ZipRecruiter’s data reflects that, with software engineer and systems engineer as the top two most common tech jobs listed in the area.”

Other popular jobs include systems specialist, help desk support and information technology specialist.

We are in growth mode,” says Lucia Cape, senior vice president of economic development, industry relations and workforce for the Huntsville Madison County Chamber.

Areas of growth, she says, include software development, electrical engineering and computer science. In fact, about 16.7 percent of Huntsville’s workforce is in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, according to a 2014 analysis by Bloomberg.

Huntsville’s rise as a leading tech city has its roots in the space race. In the 1950s, a team of rocket scientists transformed what was then known as the “watercress capital of the world” into a technology hub that today is home to the country’s second-largest research park and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

Rockets were developed in Huntsville that sent the first U.S. satellite into orbit and put man on the moon, says Harrison Diamond, Huntsville’s business relations officer.

Recent industry announcements include plans by Blue Origin to manufacture its BE-4 engine in a state-of-the-art production facility in the city. Aerojet Rocketdyne also plans to consolidate several facilities and relocate those operations to Huntsville over the next two years.

The city’s top employers include the U.S. Army (35,000 employees), NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center (6,500), the city’s hospital (6,341) and school system (3,000) and Boeing (2,600), according to data from the chamber.

Huntsville also is home to the world’s first genomic medical clinic.

They are literally curing cancer next door,” says Gary Bolton, of Adtran, one of the top three global providers of broadband infrastructure. Bolton, the firm’s vice president for global marketing, says Adtran employs about 2,000 people in the city.

While turnover in the tech field may be common for places like Silicon Valley, Bolton says Adtran has engineers celebrating 25 years with the company. A lot of the firm’s stability comes from Huntsville’s stability, he says.

So what sets Huntsville apart? It’s the government, says Alicia Ryan, CEO of LSINC, an engineering and product development firm based in city that employs 50 people.

The federal, state and local governments collaborate with the private sector and academic institutions to help the economy thrive, says Ryan, who has been in Huntsville for 12 years after spending nearly 20 years working in the Washington, D.C., area.

I haven’t seen that anywhere else,” she notes.

A Mayor Pushes for a STEM Economy

Mayor Thomas M. Battle Jr. has prioritized job growth in STEM fields. Among other things, his leadership helped usher in GEO Huntsville, Cyber Huntsville, Energy Huntsville and Bio Huntsville initiatives to promote greater economic diversification and development within the city and bring together government and industry to work toward the shared goal of making Huntsville a global leader in research and development.

The whole American economy today is built on STEM,” says Battle, who announced in May he would seek the Republican nomination for Alabama’s governor in the 2018 race.

Battle’s office also launched the Gig City initiative — a partnership in which Google provides fiber internet access in people’s homes citywide.

“This gets you almost a shadow economy,” Battle says, in which people work for firms worldwide from their homes in Huntsville. “It opens up all kinds of possibilities. People can work anywhere in the world, and those checks that people spend become part of our economy.

Aside from the city’s investment and buy-in from the local community, Battle attributes Huntsville’s rise as a tech city in part to the high quality of life and attractive amenities.

“You have to have some basics,” he says. “Part of it is education. In second grade, our kids are coding.”

Area colleges also help to develop a tech-savvy workforce, he says. In the past five years, the city also has cultivated a thriving craft beer industry with nine local breweries.

The key is to provide a workforce that is tech savvy and also have the infrastructure in place and a quality of life,” Battle says.

red7255/Getty Images

Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT