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Educating labor force key to economic development

March 5th, 2007 11:21 am by SHARON CASKEY HAYES



KINGSPORT - For Kingsport and Sullivan County, economic development is a two-part process: Recruit new residents with the skills needed to fill jobs, and educate the work force that's already here.


"That's the story of the year," said NETWORKS - Sullivan Partnership Executive Director Richard Venable. "It's all about the people."


Internet research conducted last week showed that local companies and organizations were advertising nearly 3,000 jobs within 25 miles of Kingsport. And many of those are skilled, high-paying positions, requiring candidates with certain levels of education and know-how.


Jobs in healthcare make up many of the want-ads, but workers in other fields are also being sought, from carpenters and electricians to scientists and engineers.


Key in advertised jobs for engineers and get 115 want-ads on one Web site. Job listings for pharmacists numbered 53, while 193 technicians of all sorts were being sought on the same Web site.


"I've been in the education business 40 years, and I've done work force (development education) for probably 15 years, and I've never in all those years seen a job market like there is today," said Bill Locke, president of Northeast State Community College. "There's all kinds of jobs - wonderful jobs, great paying jobs. But you've got to have some skills to get them."


In a strategic planning retreat in 2002, Kingsport leaders recognized the need to improve the education levels of city residents as a means to further economic development. After the retreat, some city officials and private citizens got together to address the issue. One of their suggestions was to establish a higher education center in the city. Kingsport Times-News Publisher Keith Wilson was asked to spearhead the effort.


"There is clearly a need, as demonstrated by the major industries and by our own research online, for raising the skills and education of our general populace. And the higher education center is proposed as a way to provide greater access and affordability for people in this region to upgrade their education," Wilson said.


As proposed, the higher education center would combine the resources of various colleges and universities under one roof.


So far, several institutions of higher learning have expressed interest in joining the effort. Those include the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, King College in Bristol, Tenn., Tusculum College in Greeneville, Emory & Henry College in Emory, Va., Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Milligan College near Elizabethton, and Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn.


Northeast State Community College would manage the facility.


City leaders have traveled to Greenville, S.C., to see a higher education center there. That facility opened in an old shopping mall, and has since helped revitalize its surrounding neighborhood.


Greg Neal, vice president of supply chain for Wellmont Health System and vice president of education for the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, said a higher education center in Kingsport could have a similar impact, "particularly if it's located downtown."


"It's going to fuel that revitalization because you're going to have 2,000 to 3,000 additional people buying lunch, running errands, or what have you in the downtown area," Neal said.


Plus, he said the facility itself would provide employment, helping spur job growth in the city.


"It really touches all of us ultimately, because having access to higher education produces more jobs, and more jobs that provide higher income means a higher tax base, which means more infrastructure to support all the things that we want to see in the community we live in," Neal said.


Proponents of the center hope the facility will improve the college graduation rate in Kingsport. According to statistics, 27.2 percent of Americans have a bachelor's degree or higher, while the number is 21.8 percent in Tennessee.


"Peel that onion a little more to Sullivan County, and only 18.9 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher. In Hawkins County, it's only 10 percent," Neal said.


"Those are pretty staggering statistics when you consider the fact that the fastest-growing jobs in our economy will require some sort of education beyond high school," he said.


Locke said the benefits of a higher education center are numerous. For students, the center would allow them to pursue educational levels and degree programs that aren't currently available here. For instance, the University of Tennessee could offer a degree in engineering at the facility.


"Right now you can't get an engineering degree anywhere in the Tri-Cities," Neal said.


Locke said the center would provide cost efficiencies, allowing colleges and universities to combine resources under one roof. He said those savings could be passed on to students.


Plus, such a center would boost economic development efforts. Wilson said communities that serve as home to a college or university have a greater percentage of population with higher education levels - one feature that companies look for when searching for a new community in which to locate.


"Companies are looking for skilled workers, and if you have a population that exceeds the average education at the state and national levels, we know we can be more successful in recruiting new businesses," Wilson said.


Neal said the center would also help the city retain its existing businesses.


"We've got some good employers in this area. We all know who they are. And the leaders of every one of these companies is screaming from the rooftop that we need this center for higher education in Kingsport, just to provide folks to fill the positions that are open today - not to mention the ones that are going to be open in the next 10 years or so," Neal said.


The proposed higher education center isn't Kingsport's first effort to improve the educational levels of its citizens.


In 2000, Kingsport adopted Educate & Grow, a unique program that provides two years of tuition assistance at Northeast State Community College to newly graduated high school students who meet academic requirements.


Sullivan County adopted Educate & Grow a year later, and Unicoi County followed suit to help educate its new high school graduates.


A record 144 students from Sullivan and Unicoi counties were enrolled at Northeast State last fall through the scholarship program.


Educate & Grow has attracted the attention of state leaders. Last year, Gov. Phil Bredesen said he hopes to use the program as a model to offer community college tuition assistance to any new high school graduate in Tennessee, as long as they demonstrate a reasonable level of college readiness.


Now, the Northeast State College Foundation is looking to expand the program further. One idea on the table is to develop a scholarship program for older, non-traditional students. Currently, Educate & Grow is offered only to new high school graduates.


"We have come to the conclusion that we're missing a bunch of kids that may have made a mistake. They don't have the skills, they apply for jobs and their resumes don't go anywhere. And now they want to go back to school," Venable said. "We need to make it possible for people to upgrade their skills so they can upgrade their job."


Locke said several ideas are being considered - all designed to improve the education and skills of the local labor force. "It's all about enabling more people to come to school," he said.


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