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Industry report highlights technology investments in North Carolina

By Matthew Sasser, State Affairs Pro

Last fall, the state’s top technology official asked a class at a Richmond County high school a question: “Did you know that there are over 21,000 cybersecurity job openings in North Carolina alone today?”

Jim Weaver, secretary of the Department of Information Technology and the state’s chief information officer, had just delivered a truck full of school supplies and equipment to computer science students in one of North Carolina’s more rural counties.

“To be successful in whatever career you ultimately choose, you must be knowledgeable about information technology and learn how to use and apply it,” Weaver said. “Please take the courses you take seriously. Get your credit and do your best. This will lay the foundation for your future success.”

There couldn’t be a better state in which to speak those words, according to data from the North Carolina State of Technology Industry Report, presented to lawmakers and industry leaders on Wednesday.

No district is left behind

During the hectic final day of the short session on Thursday, Senate Bill 743 did not attract much attention.

“This is a fantastic bill,” said Republican Rep. Jake Johnson of Polk. “It will provide $1.5 billion from the federal government and all counties will be able to participate in the Completing Access to Broadband (CAB) program.”

Days earlier, a committee meeting had stressed the need to remove the obligation for individual counties to provide their own funds. This prevented 65 counties that had not originally provided any local funds for this project from receiving any money at all.

“If we don’t start or award projects before September or later, we’ll end up with three months or less to complete $350 million worth of projects, and there’ll be no room for providers to request extensions. So it’s going to be tight,” Nate Denny, the department’s assistant secretary for broadband and digital equity, said last week in a House committee.

During a recess on June 27, 2024, Republican Rep. Jake Johnson of Polk speaks about the importance of passing a bill this year that would allow all North Carolina counties to receive federal broadband funding. (Source: Clifton Dowell)

It is critical that the Senate take up SB 743 during one of the resumption sessions provided for in the adjournment resolution, Johnson said during a recess in the final hour of the House session on Thursday. Otherwise, most North Carolina counties will not receive federal grants from the CAB, he added.

Johnson said he spoke with Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick), who as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee largely directs the flow of legislation in that chamber.

Combined with funding from the American Rescue Plan, North Carolina has made great strides in securing broadband access and creating a future that benefits a technology-focused workforce. NCDIT will launch BEAD-funded programs in January 2025.

“Every company is a technology company, whether they realize it or not,” Johnson said.

Above average

Brian Gregory, vice president of state government affairs at Charter Communications and chairman of the North Carolina Tech Board, said North Carolina is the envy of other states when it comes to participating in national conferences.

“The model we have developed here as a state in a bipartisan manner to establish broadband grant programs is first-class,” Gregory said Wednesday at the opening of the House Budget and Information Technology Committee.

According to Brooks Raiford, president and CEO of the North Carolina Technology Association, the NCSTIR report is an “environmental analysis” of how North Carolina compares to other states in various technology areas.

Between 2017 and 2022, over 50,000 tech jobs were created in North Carolina’s economy. The state has 11 counties where tech jobs account for more than 6% of total employment. Of the tech jobs available in the state, only 55% require a post-secondary education.

North Carolina continues to lead the way in the number of female tech employees, with women making up 37.1% of the industry, behind only the District of Columbia. Just over 50% of graduates from STEM programs in the state stay in North Carolina, Raiford said, adding that the state has not been affected by a “brain drain.”

The Raleigh-Cary and Durham-Chapel Hill metropolitan areas consistently rank among the most desirable and innovative tech regions in national rankings, Raiford added. “Regardless, (Raleigh and Durham) rank in the top 10. Imagine if they were one of them.”

Raiford emphasized that Wilmington “lives beyond its means” and is regularly cited as the world’s leading entrepreneurship ecosystem with a population of less than 300,000.

Weaver, the state’s technology chief, said it represents a “culture shift” that the National Association of State Chief Information Officers has identified digital government services as a top priority.

“This is not necessarily a technology problem,” Weaver said. “We need to start thinking about how we can serve the citizens of North Carolina differently. … I think local government is way ahead of us on that path.”

Nate Denny, assistant secretary for broadband and digital equity in the Department of Information Technology, discusses the state’s broadband expansion with the Joint Legislative Oversight on Information Technology on April 18, 2024. (Source: Clifton Dowell)

Artificial intelligence appears on the association’s environmental scan list for the first time this year. Weaver said many good and powerful applications of AI can also be dangerous, particularly when it comes to data. He added that an AI framework document aims to address this problem.

“For generative AI to be successful, data is key,” Weaver said. “Generative AI alone cannot do anything. It needs data, and we are the custodians of that data.”

Weaver said his department takes a risk-based approach to everything related to AI: A working group has been assembled with various business and information technology leaders whose primary goal is to protect the data of North Carolina citizens.

With the rise of generative AI comes concerns about power consumption. The data centers operated at the government level cannot meet the power demands that the new technology requires, Weaver said. Water cooling systems are now being introduced in high-power data centers to manage power consumption.

A dashboard is available to the public at where they can view current broadband projects and their funding status and estimated completion dates.

If you have questions or comments, or would like to share story ideas, please write to Matthew Sasser at (email protected) or contact the NC Insider at (email protected) or @StateAffairsNC.

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