By the BF Staff
From the May/June 2021 Issue
Disruptions triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic threw a monkey wrench in Alabama’s economy in 2020, interrupting a period of substantial growth that had produced record employment levels. Today, Alabama is regaining its lost momentum, with significant growth projects launching in key strategic industrial clusters that should help accelerate the recovery taking place across the state.
For starters, hiring is back on track. AIDT, the state’s primary workforce development agency, reported this year that it was working with over 130 companies that are hiring Alabamians—the highest level of activity in its 50-year history. Overall, Alabama’s labor market continues to show improvement, with a recent jobless rate of 4 percent, one of the nation’s lowest rates. Employment is just slightly below pre-pandemic levels.
Meanwhile, Alabama’s auto industry remains a dynamic growth engine for the state’s economy, overcoming challenges posed by the pandemic to resume production safely. In fact, Alabama’s auto sector is projected to add more than 6,000 jobs in the coming months.
The 2021 production launch at Mazda Toyota Manufacturing in Huntsville represents an important milestone in the history of Alabama’s auto industry. This project will not only bring up to 4,000 direct jobs but also a fifth global automaker, Mazda, to Alabama. An additional $830 million in capital investment was announced in August 2020, pushing the total investment in the Huntsville facility to more than $2.3 billion.
In addition, a total of eight Mazda Toyota suppliers have pinpointed sites in Alabama for production locations that are creating over 2,000 new auto-sector jobs, most of them in Huntsville. Combined, their investment tops $750 million, according to data from the Alabama Department of Commerce.
Other developments are adding spark to the sector’s growth story. Hyundai, for example, is adding two new vehicles to its Alabama production lineup this year, while Mercedes-Benz will begin assembling electric vehicles in the state during 2022.
At the same time, Alabama has benefited from pandemic-related shifts in supply chain strategies and the need for companies to be closer to e-commerce shoppers. Large-scale distribution and logistics projects are now underway in the state from companies including ALDI, Amazon, Dollar General, Lowe’s Home Improvement and FedEx. These projects and others involve over $500 million in new investment and the creation of at least 2,000 jobs in the state.
Fortunately, the pandemic didn’t halt growth in some of Alabama’s traditional industries, including steelmaking and aerospace.
Earlier this year, the AM/NS Calvert joint venture between ArcelorMittal and Nippon Steel began construction on a $775 million electric arc steelmaking facility at its mill near Mobile, a project that will create 200 jobs. At Fairfield Works, near Birmingham, U.S. Steel commissioned an EAS facility after a massive investment.
Alabama’s aerospace industry continues to turn out rockets, engines, missiles, aircraft and more, through industry leaders such as Boeing, Airbus, Lockheed Martin and the United Launch Alliance (ULA). Employment in Alabama’s aerospace manufacturing sector actually rose by 100 jobs during 2020, figures show.
With the recovery gaining steam, Alabama is gearing up for what’s next. Recruiting high-tech jobs has become an increasing priority for Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield and Alabama’s economic development team, and those efforts are poised to pay off in 2021.
The tech project pipeline looks robust, and the state is benefiting from the fact that the pandemic demonstrated that tech companies simply don’t have to be anchored in traditional hotspots, where the cost of doing business is often exorbitant.
Talent attraction and workforce development platforms, along with new accelerator programs, are positioning communities in Alabama for tech-sector job growth. New incentives for high-tech companies are also elevating Alabama’s attractiveness. And established programs, including the Alabama Launchpad initiative and the Alabama Innovation Fund, continue to play a vital role in this effort.
Plus, state leadership is firmly committed. Last year, Governor Kay Ivey established the Alabama Innovation Commission, the first statewide commission focused on entrepreneurship and growing the state’s innovation economy.
The Commission has proposed the creation of the Alabama Innovation Corp., a public-private partnership that aims to spur economic growth, technology-focused innovation and job creation throughout the state. The initiative would promote specific initiatives to support statewide entrepreneurship, rural businesses, R&D at existing companies and access to advanced tech skills that power a 21st Century workplace.
Much of the tech-related innovation in Alabama is occurring in the state’s bioscience sector, a vibrant component of the state’s economy that often gets overlooked despite Alabama research institutions blazing new trails at the forefront of genomics and drug discovery.
Last year, Auburn-based SiO2 Materials Science invested $163 million to rapidly expand production of its innovative vaccine vials at an Alabama facility. Today, Moderna is using these patented, unbreakable vial systems to distribute a groundbreaking SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, protecting Alabamians and people around the world while putting us all on the road to a speedier recovery.
NORTH ALABAMA: ON THE CUTTING EDGE OF ADVANCED MANUFACTURING
The 13 county North Alabama region has a long-standing history of success. From the earliest Apollo space program to the most advanced manufacturing technology, North Alabama has played a key role in notable economic development.
Most recently the automotive sector is growing rapidly in North Alabama. Mazda-Toyota has formed a joint partnership manufacturing facility in which to produce their respective automobiles. This $2.43 billion project will employ 4,000 people and upon full production will build 300,000 vehicles per year. The new facility is scheduled to open in late 2021. The region is home to over 100 suppliers who supply OEMs throughout the Southeast. To assist suppliers in finding sites for expansion into the area, the North Alabama Industrial Development Association (NAIDA) implemented a web-based microsite, which can be found at AutomotiveSites.us. This website features select available greenfield sites and buildings that are deemed ready for development in each of the counties in North Alabama.
While the automotive industry is thriving, North Alabama is also home to companies who build some of the most outstanding and complicated products in the world. Rockets, rocket engines, hypersonic programs, missile development, composites, advanced metals and numerous research and development initiatives are all found in the area. The region is also leading the way in artificial intelligence, cyber intelligence, VR and robotic technology. The Hudson-Alpha Institute for Biotechnology combined with its 40-plus associate companies is a world class life sciences organization leading the way in human genome sequencing. Other industry segments include chemicals/composites, metals and alloys, aerospace and defense and forestry/wood products.
“Cutting edge technology” has a long background in the region and continues today with companies such as Facebook, Google and DC Blox coming online with new data center projects. They are taking advantage of Alabama’s favorable business climate, including extremely reliable low cost power provided by TVA and its distributor network along with green energy resources.
This exciting growth is supported by employee training programs offered through AIDTraining, Robotics Technology Park (RTP) and the Alabama Community College System (ACCS), all acting as the backbone of North Alabama’s success in preparing its current and future workforce for Industry 4.0 advanced manufacturing standards. The programs offered by these entities are custom tailored for both new employees to the job market as well as existing employees who seek newer advanced skill sets. Each year many existing companies throughout North Alabama expand their operations knowing that the workforce is dedicated to their craft and success.
U.S News and World Report recently named the Best High Schools in America. Of the 40 schools named in the State of Alabama, 16 are in North Alabama. The new Alabama School for Cyber Technology and Engineering is the only high school in the nation for students seeking advanced engineering and cyber tech studies. North Alabama is also home to 12 institutions of higher learning. Educational programs throughout the area are a priority for all grade levels.
Furthering the ongoing success of the area, the State of Alabama has been named by the Department of Defense as one of six nationwide locations to establish the Alabama Defense Advanced Manufacturing Community (ADAMC). Of the 22 counties comprising this area, seven are in the North Alabama region. In conjunction with this program, North Alabama will be home to the recently announced Advanced Manufacturing Innovation & Integration Center (AMIIC).
In order to accommodate continued economic development, the region offers an available site inventory of over 3,000 acres that have Advantage Site designation, which offers shortened site development timeframes. Additionally, over three million square feet of available buildings are in the region, with more speculative facilities under construction.
North Alabama is geographically located in the center of the Southeastern United States market. This allows easy transportation routes via water, air and highway. The Huntsville International Airport has direct flights to major cities and international air cargo flights to Europe, Asia and South America. It is also the location of Foreign Trade Zone #83 with U.S. Customs and Border Protection located onsite. The airport has also been selected as a Federal Aviation Association (FAA) Unmanned Aircraft Systems Detection & Mitigation Research Program Test Site.
The North Alabama quality of life is a compelling part of the attraction for relocating workers. Several communities in the area offer recruiting programs for the Best & Brightest and Remote Worker incentives. Relocating workers are thrilled with the 82.3 overall cost of living index, housing costs, low tax rates and an average 23-minute commute time. Outdoor enthusiasts can choose activities on the river, lakes, in the mountains and many other outdoor opportunities. The 44th Annual Migration Study from United Van Lines for 2020, ranked the State of Alabama 8th for in-bound migration while the North Alabama region ranked number four.
Formed in 1949, NAIDA offers assistance and site selection support for the 13 county North Alabama region. The Association is a regional nonprofit industrial recruitment organization served by the Tennessee Valley Authority electric power distributors and provides a wide range of information resources that a new or expanding company might need in order to make a site location decision.
HUDSONALPHA IS DEVELOPING BIOENERGY FROM SWITCHGRASS
Several research groups at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology are passionate about producing crops that can be used as fuel to create clean and sustainable energy for our planet. They recently helped produce a valuable reference genome for switchgrass, a promising candidate for biofuel—renewable fuel that is produced from the biomass of plants.
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is a native North American plant with widespread distribution across the eastern United States. It grows on marginal land with little resource input so it does not take land and resources away from food crop production, adding to its promise as a biofuel candidate.
Regional differences have been observed in switchgrass plants across the country—plants from the northern U.S., called upland, are often smaller in size compared to plants from the southern U.S., called lowland, which are large and produce a lot of biomass. However, the southern plants often cannot survive cold conditions in the north. HudsonAlpha scientists and the DOE are interested in transposing these traits to create plants that can survive across a range of environments while still producing a large amount of biomass that can be turned into biofuel.
“In order to determine the genetic regions responsible for useful traits in switchgrass, researchers needed a reference point from which to identify differences between the varieties of switchgrass,” said HudsonAlpha Faculty Investigator Jane Grimwood, PhD.
Hence the switchgrass reference genome project was born. Sequencing the switchgrass genome is complicated by the fact that it is a tetraploid, having four copies of its nine chromosomes (for reference, humans have two copies of each chromosome). However, using the ever-advancing next-generation and third-generation sequencing technologies, scientists at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology are masters at generating complex plant genomes. As of early 2021, they have sequenced reference genomes for more than 175 plants—approximately half of the plants sequenced as high-quality references worldwide.
Because of their plant genome expertise, the scientists at HudsonAlpha are part of a multinational team that have been studying the genome of switchgrass for over a decade. They recently published a new version of the switchgrass reference genome. The high-quality switchgrass genome generated by the HudsonAlpha team and their collaborators over nearly a decade allows the team to make discoveries that just would not have been possible without it. Until very recently, when researchers wanted to study traits in polyploid crops that have complex genomes like switchgrass, they had to use less complex crop genomes as a model and then infer the trait back into the complex genome.
As the high-quality genome came together, a collaborating research team set off on a cross-country mission to collect switchgrass from all over its growing region. The goal was to plant these diversity sets at more than 10 research gardens ranging eight states and 1,100 miles. Using the new version of the switchgrass genome, the research team analyzed the genomes of 732 diverse switchgrass plants from these research gardens to begin mapping out local switchgrass adaptations and linking the traits to their underlying genetics.
When the team started comparing the research gardens with the genetic groupings, things got interesting. As they went up the East Coast, the plants got smaller and hardier, yet the plants were not genetically much different from those further south. Adding to the unusual finding, during a cold winter in 2018 some of these plants that were located in Chicago survived even though their genetic material is lowland, which do not typically tolerate cold. The team reasoned that there must be a small subset of the genome that is strongly contributing to the cold tolerance trait, allowing these genetically lowland plants to survive a harsh winter.
After diving further into the genome, the team found pieces of the genome from a Midwest subpopulation in the Atlantic subpopulation, suggesting that they obtained genes for winter survival from the Midwest subpopulation. This knowledge, combined with the new reference genome, allows the team to map regions of the switchgrass genome that are associated with climate adaptation and fitness.
“The newest version of the switchgrass genome allows us to spot regions in the genome that are associated with important traits like cold tolerance. Once we identify these regions, breeders can use them to develop new strains of switchgrass,” says Lovell.
Research advancements like the high-quality switchgrass genome are fostered on the HudsonAlpha campus among HudsonAlpha faculty investigators as well as the over 40 resident bioscience associate companies. HudsonAlpha was founded as a nonprofit to combine the power of academic research with the resources of the commercial sector. Since its founding, more than a decade ago, the mission of the Institute has been to leverage discoveries to improve the human condition.
The Institute’s 152-acre biotech campus, located in an Opportunity Zone, offers room to grow and access to quality resources, including top talent and a ready workforce, continuous knowledge sharing and funding sources for intellectual property—all in a collaborative community of bioscience enterprises. More than 40 bioscience companies have chosen to establish a presence on the HudsonAlpha campus, taking advantage of proximity to this cutting edge research and the state’s growing biotech workforce.
MOBILE: GAME-CHANGING CAREERS
One of the largest cities on the Gulf Coast and just one hour from the nation’s most beautiful white sand beaches, the City of Mobile is where commerce meets coastal and the bay meets booming industry.
Mobile, Alabama is one of the oldest cities in the nation, and has come a long way over the last 15 years with an ongoing transformation of its downtown and an economy powered by global companies like Airbus, Austal and Evonik. As a major port city, Mobile has welcomed new industries and new people since day one. It has maintained its culture and traditions, yet supports growth and change. Mobile’s Mardi Gras has evolved into two weeks of parades and street parties.
The streets of this mid-sized city have stunning historical buildings with cast-iron balconies and European landmarks, sprawling live oak trees offering lush greenery, co-working spaces, cafes and even a few skyscrapers, including the tallest building in Alabama. This Gulf Coast city has soul and character.
Your ideal home in Mobile won’t break the bank. Zillow reports Mobile’s median home values are around $125,000 and rent at $925—from fully-renovated historic homes walkable to downtown, to new and custom-built homes, to downtown apartments, to waterfront property on the bay or a home on one of Mobile’s creeks and rivers.
Mobile’s average cost of living is 10 percent lower than the national average and 13 to 35 percent lower than cities like Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas. And because this port city is home to major global companies, many people find themselves making great wages in a significantly lower-cost city. Alabama has a low state income tax and the second-lowest property tax in the nation.
While the opportunities are vast, Mobile’s commute time is lower than most major metros. Mobile is a national hub for the energy, aerospace, maritime and chemical industries, as well as a regional center for health and IT/high-tech. Mobile is home to Airbus’ first U.S.-based manufacturing facility, as well as major engineering operations, and has the only academic cancer research and treatment center, USA Mitchell Cancer Institute, and Level 1 trauma center in the region.
Other high-profile companies like AM/NS Calvert, Outokumpu Stainless and SSAB, along with national brands like BASF, CPSI and Kimberly-Clark make products that travel around the world.
Tech talent and entrepreneurs find a supportive ecosystem and resources, including University of South Alabama’s (USA) Technology and Research Park and Innovation Portal, a small business incubator and accelerator serving south Alabama and the Gulf Coast located in downtown Mobile.
Mobile is a coastal melting pot of Spanish, French, Caribbean and African cultures, combined with new foreign-born residents who come from Germany, China, the Philippines and Honduras, and others to work with the more than 60 global companies located in the area.
Mobilians will tell everyone celebration is in their DNA. They love Mardi Gras, monthly art walks through downtown galleries, festivals, weekly farmers markets, breweries and craft cocktail bars, concerts and music venues all within a 17-block circle around downtown.
The city’s food scene ranges from new chefs getting recognition by James Beard, to waterfront hangouts with fresh Gulf seafood.
Mobile County is home to Alabama’s sunset capital—Dauphin Island, with its exceptional fishing opportunities and white sand beaches. With 70 parks, bike paths, hiking trails and options to kayak or boat on the bay, there is plenty of outdoor adventure. Mobile is home to the biologically rich Mobile-Tensaw Delta, known as “America’s Amazon.”
To celebrate the city’s rich history, there are a few one-of-a-kind assets like the Dora Franklin Finley African American Heritage Trail; the NFL’s Senior Bowl; the Gulf Coast Challenge, an annual football game between two teams from Historically Black Colleges and Universities; and college football’s LendingTree Bowl.
Mobile County has the state’s largest Advanced Placement program for students, plus 12 Signature Academies with career-oriented curriculums focused on pre-med, advanced manufacturing, engineering, law, aviation and aerospace, information technology and more. Major universities and community colleges offering two-year and four-year degree options include the University of South Alabama, the largest, Bishop State Community College, Coastal Alabama Community College, Spring Hill College and the University of Mobile.
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