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The recent announcement by Odebrecht and Governor Tomblin was an exciting moment for the state of West Virginia.  But there is a long journey ahead.  The train has only left the station, and we need to work together to keep it both on track and moving ahead.  Both education and innovation are critical to maintaining this positive momentum.

An ethane cracker is not a stand-alone operation: the proposed construction includes three polyethylene production units.  And there is a very long value chain associated with the ethylene molecule.  So, the announcement is not just about the extraction of a raw material from West Virginia. This is about contributing to the manufacturing of products that enhance the lives of many people, every day, across our great country.

Many of these products, and the impact they have to improve lives, were derived from innovative minds.  Innovation, in its various forms, offers the opportunity to make these existing products even better, to make the manufacturing plants from which they were produced more efficient, and to make the safe chemical processes upstream even safer.

Innovation brought us the opportunity from shale gas, and it will continue to deliver success for decades to come. These innovative minds don’t just appear out of thin air. The talent will come from a well-educated workforce.

We’ve all seen the economic impact predictions. For example, the American Chemistry Council reports that an investment in an ethane cracker in the state would results in $8 billion in revenue and more than 9,000 West Virginia jobs.

Are we prepared to fill these jobs?

Nearly 10,000 baby boomers are reaching the age of 65 every day in the United States, and we need to make sure that we have enough STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) graduates in the workforce pipeline.  Because these projected jobs aren’t only for engineers and chemists. They also include the construction trades, chemical process technicians, and maintenance workers. And all of these jobs have one thing in common: a solid foundation in science and mathematics.

Many people ask a straightforward question: will West Virginians be the ones to fill these jobs? The answer can be yes, unless we don’t have the skills necessary to do the work.

Our public schools, community colleges and universities need to continue to collaborate with large manufacturers like Braskem, Dow and Bayer – and West Virginia innovation engines like MATRIC – to learn what jobs we anticipate we’ll need over the next ten, twenty, and thirty years.  And we all need to encourage children to pursue fulfilling STEM careers, as studies show that students begin to lose interest in STEM as early as elementary school.

STEM education need not stop with those who will fill these jobs.  A well-rounded education, including a fundamental appreciation for the arts and understanding of science and math, is critical for a citizenry that is able to enjoy a full life. We need people in public office who will serve their constituency well by supporting legislation based in sound science.  Without a STEM-literate citizenry, we won’t be able to take full advantage of the wealth beneath our feet.

Success for our next generation is predicated on innovation and education.  We should all look forward with anticipation, as our future is bright!

— Editor’s Note: This blog is an abridged version of an opinion editorial by Steve Hedrick, CEO of MATRIC, which was first published in the November 19, 2013, issue of the Charleston Daily Mail. Read it here: http://www.charlestondailymail.com/Opinion/Commentary/201311180168. For more information on the topic of Marcellus shale, education and innovation, please contact chemical-catalyst-catalyst-testing-chemical-catalyst-chemical-pilot-plant-demonstration-plant-solids-processing-chemical-separations@matricinnovates.com.