North Carolina: The Future of the Clean Energy and Tech Economy

North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, and its surrounding region, have grown exponentially over the last half century. This change is driven by a variety of knowledge-based industries that transformed the region into one of the most productive and innovative in the country. Information technology (IT), telecommunications, biotechnology, medicine, and innovative entrepreneurship have all contributed to local and regional economic growth, aided by a steady flow of research and investment in education and training from local universities and community colleges. In the 21st century, the Research Triangle region is poised to become a leader in the cleantech economy: there are a growing number of large companies and small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs) on the cutting edge of smart energy, smart water, and smart transportation, as well as support industries for this emerging sector, including information technology and data analytics.


Government officials and clean energy advocates understand the implications of using resources more efficiently and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but  are less clear about how the shifting economy will impact regional economic development. One major challenge moving forward is understanding how regional institutions can prepare for the new cleantech economy. During the first half of 2015, Carolina Planning alumni Sara Lawrence of RTI International (MCRP ‘01), Christa Wagner Vinson of the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster (MCRP ‘10), and I set out to answer that question: What will the future workforce for clean energy and technology look like, and how can the region proactively position itself to have the most competitive workforce and business climate for cleantech?


In a collaboration with RTI International, the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster, the NCTA, and Duke University, we reached out to over 600 local companies in a mix of sectors, including power engineering, energy services, utilities, renewables, data analytics, software, and consulting to understand their workforce needs and what they envisioned as target areas for growth and job creation. What we found surprised us: the desired skills for workers in clean energy and technology companies are not traditionally associated with energy or utilities. Companies large and small were looking to diversify and add software and analytics capacities, increase their ability to work more quickly, and incorporate more ‘smart’ technology.

Skilled Hiring Needs

Using this data, we came to two important conclusions. First, this sector is poised to grow and add more than 3,000 local jobs in the next five years. Second, the jobs that will be created in this sector do not fit the traditional molds of education and work that existed in the past. Companies are looking for creativity, cross-cutting skills, passion for the field, and an ability to think proactively and solve problems. The future of the cleantech sector will require a combination of regional strategies to strengthen the workforce. These strategies include companies partnering with educational institutions, using apprenticeships, internships, and hands-on training at the K-12, community college, and university levels to train tomorrow’s workers. Regional collaboration will strengthen the role of SMEs and allow their voice to be heard at a national level, improving the local cluster1 and attracting more attention and investment from around the world.

The success of cleantech as a driver for regional economic growth depends on proactive thinking and the continued growth of a strong workforce. The Research Triangle is well positioned to become a national leader in the Clean Energy and Technology sector.

The full report can be found here.

1Clusters are groups of interconnected firms, suppliers, related industries, and specialized institutions that arise in particular locations. Popularized by Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School, clusters are a method of regional economic analysis. An overview and data on clustering can be found here.

About the Author: Michael Hogan is an economic researcher at RTI International and a second year MCRP student specializing in economic development. Originally from North Carolina, he comes to UNC via Santiago, Chile, where he worked on innovative business development projects for the copper mining industry, investing in new copper products and improved mining and refining processes. His research and professional interests include local and regional economic development through industry transformation, diversification, and value chain upgrading.