Eric Abelquist: ETEC chair for 2020
Almost every Friday at 7:30, you will find Eric Abelquist, Ph.D., CHP, drinking coffee at the breakfast meetings of East Tennessee Economic Council (ETEC).
“I attend because I get firsthand information about what’s going on. People see it as important to show up and network,” said Abelquist, who has been attending since 2008 and this year serves as ETEC chair.
Most Fridays, usually more than 100 people will come to hear speakers and share information. Among them will be representatives of federal contractors, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the National Nuclear Security Administration, small businesses, local economic development organizations and educational institutions. Elected leaders and state officials are often in attendance to gauge the region’s economic climate, hear industry concerns and supply news from Washington, Nashville and elsewhere.
ETEC is an independent, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to supporting the federal government’s missions in East Tennessee by encouraging growth opportunities for the workforce and technology of the region. It was organized in 1973.
“ETEC has been a steady force for my community engagement,” said Abelquist, who has served on several ETEC committees and presented programs at meetings. As chair, he will oversee Friday morning meetings, preside at monthly board meetings, coordinate workshops and follow through on the work plan for 2020.
A strategic planning meeting in November informed the 2020 work plan. “It is a very collaborative, consensus-building approach. We listened for common themes and develop our program topics,” said Abelquist. Areas of interest frequently expressed—workforce development and nuclear decommissioning—line up with ORAU’s top capabilities.
Workforce development is a primary concern for ETEC members because Oak Ridge National Laboratory and companies, such as UCOR, require highly proficient scientists, physicists and other professionals to conduct their missions.
“We are in an era of significant growth in Oak Ridge. It started four or five years ago and is projected to continue several more years. There is a high demand for a skilled workforce in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines,” said Abelquist. “ORAU helps meet that challenging demand. Workforce development is what we do, particularly under the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) contract managed by ORAU for DOE.”
Nuclear decommissioning projects are underway in Oak Ridge and at nuclear power reactor sites across the country. “One of my goals is to make sure the decommissioning topic stays at the forefront because it bodes well for ETEC members. A lot of companies in this area have the capabilities and expertise to perform environmental cleanup and nuclear decommissioning, so Oak Ridge is an industry leader in decommissioning,” said Abelquist. Indeed, the nuclear engineering department of the University of Tennessee recently established a nuclear decommissioning curriculum to address this workforce need.
At meetings, ETEC members and staff communicate frequently with political leaders, such as U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleishmann, or senior members of their staffs. “Relationships are important to growing business. They help identify the right opportunities and partners to build business and grow the economy,” said Abelquist.
In 2020, a hot topic for discussion will be Sen. Lamar Alexander’s final year on Capitol Hill. His term ends in January 2021. “He has been a huge supporter of the Oak Ridge mission for decades, so this is a significant departure,” said Abelquist, noting that Alexander’s many years in the U.S. Senate have earned him leadership positions on important committees, such as the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Sen. Alexander has always believed Oak Ridge has the potential to lift Knoxville and the entire region economically because of the science, energy and security mission. His support and influence in D.C. will be greatly missed,” he said.