RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A lot of Americans are still waiting for a strong economy to return. With unemployment at nine percent, more than 12 million Americans are out of work. But there are bright spots in the U.S. economy. NPR's Planet Money and Wired magazine has spent the last six months scouring economic data and interviewing people around the country to find out what exactly are the areas where the economy is doing well. It's part of a series called Smart Jobs. NPR's Adam Davidson reports.
ADAM DAVIDSON: Let me boil our findings down to one quick tip: If you want a job - a good job, a job that will be around for a while and that pays well -find a company that creates something new - some new product or service that nobody else has. And keep in mind, that does not just mean computer companies in Silicon Valley, or biotech start-ups in Boston. One of our biggest surprises to Wired and Planet Money is that high-tech innovation exists in all sorts of old industries, places you'd never suspect.
Like, for example, let me take you into one of the most high-tech secret innovation labs in the United States.
Mr. AL BALDUCCHI: So let's just walk in here and...
DAVIDSON: It's not that hot. I thought it would be miserable.
What are you picturing? What do you think they invent here? Alright, I'll tell you. This is a greenhouse in Memphis, Tennessee. It looks like any garden store. But this is where Bayer, the aspirin company, the one headquartered in Germany, invents cotton - new kinds of cotton plants. Seriously. Bayer CropScience is right now the leading seller of cotton seed to cotton farmers in the U.S., all because of their genetically modified cotton.
Al Balducchi, who runs this place, calls that genetic modification a form of technology - a use of the word that seems kind of strange to me.
When I think of technology, I think of, like, you know, my cell phone has a better camera or now I have a Bluetooth headset that can do this or that. I don't think of plants.
Mr. BALDUCCHI: You can think of these plants as being wired differently. I mean, these are new functions, these are new capabilities. These are new abilities that we're building in.
DAVIDSON: So cotton is as high-tech as my phone, is what you're saying.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BALDUCCHI: It can be.
DAVIDSON: Cotton seed worldwide is a multi-billion dollar business. Bayer and the other leading companies, Monsanto and Dow, battle every growing season for market share by trying to convince farmers that only they have the latest, coolest cotton technology.
Which is exactly why you might consider a job in the exciting high-tech world of cotton. Bayer and Monsanto and Dow can only make money if they invent new things every year. And the only way to invent new things every year is to have lots of people conducting research and development.
And it's not just plant specialists with PhDs - although they do employ plenty of those. Al Balducchi does have a Master's in plant breeding, but he tells me they need plenty of folks with less education. Like Craig Grady, who goes around all day long fertilizing cotton plants. Now, that job isn't particularly high-tech. He takes flowers from one cotton plant and rubs them on the flowers of another.
Mr. CRAIG GRADY (Bayer CropScience Employee): We pop the flower off, and then fold the petals back.
DAVIDSON: And you just rub it on.
Mr. GRADY: Just rub it on, yeah.
DAVIDSON: So it's just like a bee. I mean it's the same...
Mr. GRADY: Right, just pollinating, exactly.
DAVIDSON: Now, this job, being a human bee, is fairly routine - rubbing flowers onto flowers one after the other - but it's important. One mess-up could contaminate the greenhouse and ruin millions of dollars of research. So Bayer hires good people and pays them well. Craig, the human bee, has a college degree and he says he loves his job.
Bayer CropScience has dozens of research sites around the world. At this one, they employ more than 50 people - some of them high school grads, some of them with PhDs. That's typical of an innovation-focused company.
Mr. BALDUCCHI: Hi. Is Camilla(ph) around? Hi, Felicia.
Unidentified Woman: Hello.
DAVIDSON: Balducchi takes me to the genetics testing lab, which sounds super high-tech, but the main tool they use...
(Soundbite of blender)
DAVIDSON: ...is an industrial-strength blender. They grind up some seeds or some leaves, process them, and check to see if they have the right genes. Again, it's a job that does have its tedium - grind some leaves, test them, grind some seeds, test them. But it has to be done right. Millions, maybe billions, of dollars are at stake, so they hire good people and they pay them well.
(Soundbite of blender)
DAVIDSON: There are many more jobs in cotton in China and India and parts of Africa than there are in the U.S., but those are really bad jobs - planting, weeding, picking cotton by hand for a buck or two a day. In the U.S., one cotton farmer with a tractor and genetically-modified cotton can grow and harvest about as much as 800 farmers in poorer countries can.
And that is a typical innovation trade-off - lots of pretty bad jobs in China or India turning out standard, commodity versions of a product, while far fewer people with much better jobs here in the U.S. creating the new, latest version.
This was the trend we and our partners at Wired discovered in all sorts of industries. Most standard t-shirts are made in China or other poorer parts of the world, in huge mills with lots and lots of workers. But here in the U.S., fashion-forward, high-end t-shirts are designed by well-paid designers, sewn in far nicer plants where people make more money. You see the same story in auto plants, electronics manufacturing, even oil refineries.
So our rule of thumb: If the company you work for provides a product or service that's pretty much the same as what was offered last year and a few years before that, it might be time to start looking for something new.
Adam Davidson, NPR News.
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MONTAGNE: The June issue of Wired magazine tracks smart jobs in the U.S., an atlas created with Planet Money. It's on newsstands now.