U of I's plan to stop the state's tech brain drain

Calls for investment in public-private research network

click to enlarge This is a conceptual rendering of the future Discovery Partners Institute site. Current plans are for the facility to be built in downtown Chicago on land donated by Chicago developer Related Midwest. - DPI.UILLINOIS.EDU
This is a conceptual rendering of the future Discovery Partners Institute site. Current plans are for the facility to be built in downtown Chicago on land donated by Chicago developer Related Midwest.

University of Illinois faculty say an ongoing statewide investment in a public-private research network is key to boosting the state's economy.

The Discovery Partners Institute, a UI-led research and workforce development hub based in Chicago, is the flagship program of the Illinois Innovation Network that seeks to invest in 15 regional hubs affiliated with the UI system to spur economic growth with state funding. The goal of IIN is to create technology jobs in Illinois and train the state's workforce to fill them.

UI representatives testified before the state Senate Higher Education Committee during a subject matter hearing on Dec. 14, claiming that despite Illinois' success in business and STEM education, the state hasn't seen the economic boon to match its academic output.

"So, broadly, the great thing about Illinois is it is a place where talent gets created, it has tremendous capabilities in creating tech talent," DPI Director Bill Jackson said in his testimony.

According to UI's presentation, Illinois is second nationally in computer science graduates and food research and development, fourth in MBA graduates, and fifth in data science graduates.

But this hasn't translated to the private sector, leading to a "brain drain" of Illinois-educated tech workers, he said.

"But, our issue, right, is we lose that talent," Jackson said. "It goes to the coast, it goes other places and it doesn't stay within the state. We do all the development and we don't get the essence of all that great capability we're building."

Illinois is 31st in state economic growth, 46th in private job growth, and 62 percent of computer science graduates leave the state after receiving their degree, according to the university's representatives. On top of that, half of all start-ups that raise more than $5 million relocate.

The UI's tech programs are also not racially equitable.

In Chicago, Black residents and Latino residents each make up around 30 percent of the city's population. Cumulatively, they make up 12 percent of Chicago's tech workforce, despite accounting for 60 percent of the general population.

In 2019, less than 2 percent of UI system computer and data science graduates were Black, while 5 percent were Latino. The UI representatives contended that this disparity limits the workforce that can be developed to address personnel shortfalls in the tech industry and keeps Illinois behind other states like California and Washington, which have seen similar levels of academic success as Illinois but have reaped larger growth in the private sector.

The solution, according to UI's presentation, is continued investment in computer science classes and computer science teachers in public schools zoned for underserved communities. They also promote programs that target Black and Latino K-12 students to establish a pipeline for earning computer and data science degrees at Illinois universities.

DPI's Chicago campus, in a development area called The 78, is scheduled to be completed by 2025. Most of the other hubs are situated on public university campuses and in existing structures and are scheduled to be operational over the next few years.

Hubs will have an established focus based on their region and the university that houses them. Focus areas include computing and data, food and agriculture, entrepreneurship and environment, and water.

An economic impact statement crafted by the Boston Consulting Group in late 2019 claims DPI and IIN will generate $198 billion in economic activity and create or fill 48,000 jobs over the next 10 years. The study says that by the 2029 fiscal year, the project will create or fill more than 9,500 jobs annually, with 4,500 of those going to individuals from underserved backgrounds.

DPI and IIN were originally approved under former Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2017 but had funding delayed over the course of his term. The state released $500 million in state funds for DPI and IIN in February, with another $501 million in non-state funds being committed to both projects.

At the senate committee, UI system representatives said half of the state funds will go to DPI and the other half to the 14 other hubs in the network. University of Illinois Springfield has been named as one of the 14 hubs, but the program has released no funding for UIS yet.

According to UI representatives, only a portion of that money has been distributed for the planning and construction of DPI and five other hubs so far.

Those hubs include Eastern Illinois University, Governors State University, Chicago State University, University of Illinois at Chicago and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Contact Raymon Troncoso at rtroncoso@capitolnewsillinois.com.

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