Sullivan jobs task force gets update on NETWORKS efforts

J. H. Osborne • Aug 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Fourteen of the Sullivan County Commission’s 24 members turned out Wednesday for the first meeting of a Jobs Creation Task Force.

It featured presentations by NETWORKS – Sullivan Partnership CEO Richard Venable and past NETWORKS Chairman Keith Wilson.

Venable, noting that 25 percent of the County Commission’s membership has changed since NETWORKS was created, gave a broad overview of the agency, its efforts and to-date results.

Wilson talked about the link between economic development — especially attracting new employers — and education.

County Commissioner Bart Long, who prompted formation of the task force, said he was pleased with the turnout and the information presented.

More than once Wednesday, Long praised Venable and the entire NETWORKS effort for doing an outstanding job — and said he wants them to continue doing so.

NETWORKS is a joint effort of Sullivan County and its cities and works with other economic development organizations throughout the region.

Long said his goal in forming the task force was to get county commissioners and other local elected officials ready to be more involved in the process.

“I’m not looking to change the system,” Long said. “It’s a great system.”

Venable said since its creation five years ago, NETWORKS’ efforts have resulted in more than $202 million in investments by new and existing industries and the creation of more than 2,600 jobs in Sullivan County.

Wilson, publisher of the Kingsport Times-News, identified a highly educated citizenry and a skilled work force as a “silver bullet” combination needed for successful economic development.

He noted statistics showing Sullivan County lags well behind the national average for residents with an education level at the bachelor’s degree or higher.

Wilson said Sullivan County needs about 11,500 people to complete their college degree so the county can reach the U.S. average.

And Wilson said NETWORKS is working on plans for a program to help make that an easier goal for many people, potentially providing funding and assistance to adults who would like to finish incomplete degrees.

Wilson said there are four things county commissioners can do to help draw new jobs to the area:

•Look at education as an investment in job creation.

•Expect excellence — not “good” — from your education system.

•Pay attention to key performance indicators for local schools.

•Spread the word about the good work NETWORKS is doing.

Earlier this year, NETWORKS hosted an Education Workforce Summit that drew about 140 participants.

Keynote speaker for the event Oliver “Buzz” Thomas — executive director of the Niswonger Foundation and a Baptist minister, lawyer and author — said Tennessee’s education system is broken.

Thomas cited a statistic that just 18 percent of state high school graduates made ACT benchmarks in language arts, reading, science and math.

Those benchmarks mean students have a 75 percent chance of making a C and a 50 percent chance of making a B in those course areas in college, Thomas said.

Wilson presented statistics showing the percentage of students meeting those four ACT benchmarks at: 21 percent in Bristol Tennessee’s school system; 20.8 percent in Kingsport City Schools; 18 percent in Sullivan County Schools; 41 percent in Maryville’s city system; and 49 percent in Oak Ridge’s city system.

“If you’re looking for the gold standard on performance of your educational systems, you can read (that) line,” Wilson said. “If we can get to 41 percent or 49 percent ... I can tell you a lot of the problems we’ve got are going to go away. That’s a predictor of how successful your students are going to be when they get to college. And that’s the kind of number we need to be looking for.”

Long said the task force’s next meeting will be announced later but will likely occur within the next 30 to 45 days.

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