For generations, every Arizona schoolchild learned that the state’s economy is based on the five Cs: cattle, cotton, copper, climate and citrus.
While they worked well for the Grand Canyon State in its first hundred years, the 21st century requires coders and engineers for Arizona to stay competitive and resilient through the type of shocks the past 20 years have dealt.
Gov. Doug Ducey and the state Legislature have funded a plan for the state’s three universities to develop a coordinated response to attract high-tech industry, drive job creation and make Arizona families prosperous.
It’s called the New Economy Initiative. Its goals are to create 40,000 new high-wage jobs by 2041, increase economic output to $6.9 billion by 2032 and double the return on the state’s investment by the same year.
The endgame is to pivot Arizona’s economy away from housing growth and tourism to something that is resilient to economic downturns, pandemics and whatever else the 21st century has in store.
“All of us — the citizens of the state, the Legislature, the governor, chambers of commerce — all said, we have to do something and we have to do something collectively,” said Sally C. Morton, the executive vice president of Arizona State University’s Knowledge Enterprise.
Morton advances the university’s research priorities and drives corporate engagement, economic development, global initiatives, strategic partnerships and technology transfer on behalf of the university.
“And the state universities should play a central role in this,” she said.
Each university has been given distinct roles to play. Each role aligns to their traditional strengths. Northern Arizona University will expand its capacity to address health care worker shortages in nursing, allied health and mental health education programs. The University of Arizona is launching its “One Health” initiative that leverages the university’s medical, veterinary, engineering and cooperative extension programs to address community and health care needs across the state.
And at ASU, engineering will play a very big role, but it’s just one part of the university’s efforts.
ASU’s role in New Economy Initiative
Knowledge Enterprise is coordinating ASU’s response to the New Economy Initiative. Beyond engineering, the university’s Academic, Learning and Knowledge enterprises will be involved.
Budgeting and tracking dollars, and communicating to the state what the university is doing and the impact it is having, are also important parts of ASU’s effort.
The state Legislature is providing $39.2 million in ongoing funding and $22.1 million in one-time funding to ASU for the initiative.
The university is doing three things
1. Growing the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.
The Fulton Schools have hired 16 more faculty than usual on top of new hires.
“That’s a big number,” Morton said.
In addition to hiring new faculty, ASU has been buying equipment, placing it and renovating space for it. The newest acquisition is an atomic layer depositing tool, which allows engineers to deposit materials on a computer chip in a layer as thin as one-millionth of a human hair. It has to be in a clean room
2. Focusing on student success and workforce development.
This means training students in skills that are needed in a modern workforce and upskilling existing workers, as well as providing the means for people to move into the new economy.
For example: “Someone in the workforce who thinks, boy, if I could get into microelectronics, I could really support my family better,” Morton said.
3. Building five science and technology centers.
They will be physical centers with faculty and students, but also magnets for industry to come and present the most current problem they need solved.
“We solve that with our students, faculty as well as the industry partner,” Morton said. “And then together, we push the results out. … So it kind of focuses the work, if you will.”
ASU has already launched two science and technology centers.
The Advanced Manufacturing Science and Technology Center focuses on the development of new technologies aimed at transforming manufacturing through 3D printing, robotics and automation, and new materials, with strong links to private industry support in aerospace, defense and space systems.
The Energy and Materials Science and Technology Center is a national research resource for advancing new energy materials and device technologies to market, growing industry engagement and workforce training.
The other three science and technology centers will launch in 2022–23:
• Extreme Environments will focus on management and technology opportunities associated with growing population centers, and research to engineer resiliency into the energy, water, materials and transportation systems in the built environment of future cities and regions.
• Future Communications will develop physical information systems as the “internet of things” continues, and as users increasingly desire greater access, information and reliability in communications.
• Human Performance will leverage regional, strength and technology opportunities to enhance physical and cognitive performance, medical prevention and intervention, and drive research from discovery to marketplace.
“I think of those science and technology centers as sort of the intellectual structure of the NEI,” Morton said. “The five areas were really based on both the strengths of Fulton Schools of Engineering and also a sense of where technology is going.”
Anecdotally, interest is high, according to the reactions Morton gets when she speaks to groups about the New Economy Initiative.
“Industry is really excited,” she said. “I go out and give these talks, and whether they’re virtual or in person I get business cards. People come up to me and say, ‘That sounds really cool. You know, I’ve got a company in X; how do I get connected to (a science and technology center)?’”
Partnerships and collaborations
In November 2019, Grace O’Sullivan, ASU’s vice president of corporate engagement and strategic partnerships, traveled with city of Phoenix and state officials to Hsinchu, Taiwan (considered Taiwan’s Silicon Valley), to help attract the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company to the Valley.
Several months later, the chip giant selected Arizona and announced plans to build a $12 billion chip plant in Phoenix.
“They’re bringing thousands of jobs to the Valley and an entire supplier network here,” O’Sullivan said. “The first thing they did was hire 200-plus engineering student graduates from ASU. And now we’re engaging with them on defining and scoping R&D projects, what the facilities are going to look like. They’re asking us for our curriculum and semiconductor training.”
ASU has partnerships and relationships with almost every tech giant in the state: Honeywell, Raytheon, Intel and dozens of others. Sometimes their engineers come to the university for help solving specific problems, like reprogramming a robot. Sometimes they’ll request more grads with specific skills, like 3D printing.
It has all been a dry run for the New Economy Initiative.
“We’ve been really laying the groundwork for many years ahead of time in aligning partners, getting the local community ready,” O’Sullivan said.
“From my perspective in the university, we’ve been cultivating partnerships like growing our engagements with Intel, SRP, APS, Mayo Clinic, Dignity Health … ” she continued. “Now we have this organizing framework around the New Economy Initiative and our science and technology centers. This is a great way for our industry partners to connect on these really important themes for the new economy.”
ASU has secured close to $10 million in grants from the Department of Labor for workforce development. They are focused around IT skills, cybersecurity and advanced manufacturing. The university is creating apprenticeship programs and new models for how people are getting trained in the workforce — either new talent coming in or existing employees who need to be re-skilled.
“We are working with the state workforce office, municipal workforce offices, the city of Phoenix and our community college partners to create this entire pipeline of the talent that’s needed to feed the future,” O’Sullivan said.
Mayo Clinic and ASU have more than 165 jointly appointed members — those who work at Mayo Clinic and guest lecture or teach part-time at the university.
“Now we really want to replicate that model with industry,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s a model that has a proven track record.”
Valley cities are starting to sit up and take notice that ASU makes things they want. The university is in talks with the cities of Peoria and Phoenix on how to design an innovation technology cluster in the northwest Valley.
“I think they’ve seen the success that ASU is able to bring to revitalize a region, for example, like in downtown Phoenix,” O’Sullivan said. “We are now being — maybe courted is too strong of a word — asked by cities to come and develop innovation zones or regional hubs in partnership with them.”
Meredyth Hendricks is head of upskilling within ASU’s Learning Enterprise, the university unit responsible for reimagining how to serve learners across their lifespan. Hendricks leads a team that collaborates with experts across the university to build and scale job-relevant education programs that serve two key purposes: giving learners the skills they need to succeed at every career stage, and providing employers with a more skilled workforce.
“Within the New Economy Initiative, we’re focused on catalyzing Arizona’s workforce to position learners and companies for success in Arizona’s new economy,” Hendricks said. “Our goal is to leverage ASU’s assets as a top-tier research university to build education programs that give workers the opportunity to learn in-demand job skills, from foundational professional skills to those related to cutting-edge technologies.”
The Learning Enterprise has ambitious program development goals. The first type of programs are highly scalable courses that will reach learners across the state, including those already in the workforce. One initial focus for the team is developing a robust portfolio of courses related to professional skills (sometimes termed “soft skills”), such as critical thinking, emotional intelligence and teamwork. These are rarely taught comprehensively in school, but they’re critical across many roles.
“Three out of four employers say that they have difficulty finding employees who have the professional skills their companies need,” Hendricks said. “This skills gap in the market presents an opportunity for ASU to have an impact. Moreover, these skills are not likely to be automated in the future because they are by nature human skills.”
Learning Enterprise will also be leading custom engagements with corporate partners and collaborators, including executive education, working directly with companies to address their specific workforce education goals.
“ASU faculty and researchers work at the forefront of industry innovation, and the opportunity to partner with Arizona companies to upskill their workforces is exciting. Custom partnerships can range from educating workers with entry-level skills to skills related to the frontier-technology, as that is the focus of the new Science and Technology Centers,” Hendricks said.
One example where ASU has already done custom education is with Mayo Clinic.
Mayo Clinic needed help onboarding new schedulers in an online and remote training environment, so it came to ASU. The university helped develop a new onboarding program to train these new hires.
Typically ASU’s corporate partnerships are straightforward. Honeywell contacts the Polytechnic campus and lets it know it will need 10 3D printing engineers next year. Next year, the university delivers 10 newly minted engineers. Now, that type of interaction will be greatly expanded.
“By significantly expanding the number of individuals we reach with top-quality, job-relevant education, ASU will help develop the talent Arizona needs to improve its competitiveness.” Hendricks said. “The state has given us an ambitious assignment, and I think we’re up to the task.”
With nearly 27,000 undergraduate and graduate students and 75 degree options offered on two campuses and online, the Fulton Schools of Engineering is the largest and most comprehensive engineering school in the United States.
Administrators of the Fulton Schools see two things as their greatest strength: their students and their faculty. Their plan to advance the New Economy Initiative is to rely on those strengths by beefing up both.
Engineering enrollment has skyrocketed at ASU, with undergraduate enrollment rising from more than 6,000 in 2010 to more than 20,000 in 2021. When they graduate, they move into companies and they start companies.
Because ASU is a research university, the faculty work on the cutting edge of technology. Think white lasers, medical devices and prosthetic limbs that can feel. Students are immersed in it, interning in industry or performing tasks like reprogramming a robot arm that a Raytheon supplier couldn’t complete, through the eProjects program.
“They find translational pathways,” said Kyle Squires, dean of the Fulton Schools. “They connect into industry partners that basically help industries see the horizon of where their industry sector’s headed. It de-risks that process. It basically brings us into it. And that’s something universities are uniquely able to do. ASU has really leaned into that. I think that’s one area where ASU really has a competitive advantage. We can scale that through the NEI.”
ASU is hiring new faculty to support the New Economy fields and themes — most notable recently in materials sciences.
Squires expects not only that ASU faculty will work with industry, but that industry will participate at ASU.
“They might be a practicing engineer at Intel or Boeing or whatever,” Squires said. “And they teach a class once a year, maybe twice a year, whatever. How do we fortify that structure so that if you are that double-E (electrical engineering) PhD, and we’ve been connecting with you for quite some time around some topic in teaching or research or whatever the case. What if you were to scale that and think about it broadly? What does that look like?”
The ideas being catalyzed by the state’s investment were directions ASU has been moving in for some time.
“This is not some new, crazy wild idea,” Squires said. “This is a really important direction. Now we can accelerate. We can scale. We can increase the rate of faculty hires, and that’s good on the institution because the direction makes sense.”
Arizona is primed for prosperity.
“That’s owing to ASU,” Squires said. “That’s owing to all the partners in the Valley now to get to that next level. I can’t overstate it. This is the moment that we need to catalyze that transformation to that next level — that kind of really genuinely dynamic economies that we see around the country.”
“It’s a great example of the role that public universities can play to serve our communities and just wonderful that the state has come together in this way to say we need to change this,” Morton said. “We need to change this for the future for the state and moving forward.”