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Officials say they learned area doing some things right

Sunday, April 14, 2013

By MICKEY POWELL AND DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writers

Area officials and institutions are on the right track to improve work force training, encourage entrepreneurs and help local industries create jobs.

That is a consensus of what some local officials, educators, business leaders and others gleaned from a presentation Tuesday by Laith Wardi, a Pennsylvania economic development consultant.

Assistant County Administrator Dale Wagoner said that “first off, it never hurts to hear someone else’s ideas when it comes to recommendations, but I think it’s a reality that traditional manufacturing jobs are gone from this country, and to be competitive, we have to look at other ways.”

Those ways include supporting education, “looking for those industries that are niche and that will continue to grow, entrepreneurship,” Wagoner said. “The big thing was Wardi reaffirmed (that) what the city, county and everyone involved in economic development” have created is “a solid foundation to move forward and concentrate on economic growth.”

One of Wardi’s suggestions was “to focus on existing businesses and look for opportunities to grow” them, Wagoner said. While “we are already doing that, we certainly need to continue, make that a priority and encourage companies to want to grow here,” he added.

“Everyone here is working off the same game plan, and everyone is committed to it,” Wagoner said of the county and city, the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC), New College Institute, Patrick Henry Community College and residents.

“We realize that economic development is not just about creating jobs,” but also includes tourism, “helping entrepreneurs get a start” and other efforts, Wagoner said. The fact that everyone is on board with that “I think is what we are doing right. I think that’s what makes us a ahead of other” localities.

The EDC is “like the center of the spoke” in a wheel and “kind of brings everything together,” he added.

William Wampler, executive director of the New College Institute, said Wardi “brought a very unique and very current analysis of where the work force in our community will likely find itself” in the future.

He said that while he heard Wardi’s remarks about entrepreneur development and business recruitment not being viable options to create jobs here, based on his private conversations with Wardi, he thinks the speaker did not mean his comments the way they might have sounded.

In their private talks, Wampler said Wardi told him that the community must “create a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship ... but to what scale?” He said Wardi basically told him the community must “figure out what you need and train (people) according to that size and scope.”

NCI, which is developing academic programs in entrepreneurship and advanced manufacturing, has no intention of altering its plans based on Wardi’s remarks, Wampler said. The community that consistently produces a work force that has the right skills will be “the community that wins” companies, Wampler said Wardi told him, adding Wardi “said that very firmly.”

That backs up the idea that skills training must start as soon as high school, Wampler said.

He said Wardi told him that educational institutions and industries must collaborate so companies can hire skilled workers. He said Wardi could tell “there’s a new sense of collaboration” between local companies and schools.

As far as entrepreneurship development and working to keep existing companies and recruit new ones, Wampler said he still thinks “we need to do all of it.”

Angeline Godwin, president of PHCC, said Wardi’s remarks were “very piercing,” insightful and “really went to the heart.” Based on his remarks, she also thinks “we’re right on track” in terms of the community doing what it needs to do to rebuild its economy.

She, too, talked with him privately, and said she did not perceive him to mean that the community should abandon developing entrepreneurs and trying to attract new companies. Rather, she said, the top priority should be working to help companies already here to grow and expand.

Data he presented at the conference backs that up, she noted.

If people involved in developing the local economy can “be everything we can be to businesses already here, by defacto we’re going to be more attractive to other companies” because company executives associate with each other and tend to listen to each other more than they listen to economic developers, Godwin said.

The EDC continues to be needed because if there is not some organization always “marketing and positioning this community (for economic growth), we can just hang it up,” she said.

Wardi emphasized the need for educational institutions and companies to work together, and along that line, Godwin plans to set up for PHCC an “executive-level business and industry leadership team” to advise her, college vice presidents and deans on what companies need from the college.

The college already does that on a smaller scale for various academic programs, but she said PHCC administrators need such advising, too. She hopes to get that panel established no later than this summer, she said.

Also, Godwin said she plans to accelerate incorporating more “career intelligence” into curriculums, which means emphasizing to students “plain old common sense about what work really means,” she said.

That includes understanding what the 21st century work place is like, having good communication skills, being able to “think on your feet” and knowing not just how to do the tasks they are assigned at a job, but also having a general knowledge of the company’s operations and how their job fits into those operations, she said. “You have to invest yourself in your job.”

Martinsville City Councilman Mark Stroud said he thought Wardi presented “a very common sense approach” to economic development, such as by focusing on the needs of existing businesses, although industry recruitment efforts still are needed.

Wardi’s major point, Stroud said, seemed to be that it’s harder for a smaller community to attract a company that will provide lots of jobs than it is for a larger community.

He recalled Wardi discussing some communities providing incentives for young adults to come work there to reduce so-called “brain drain” — smart people not returning home after graduating from college.

Examples of incentives that Wardi mentioned included New York City offering $5,000 grants to young people who move there and work for certain companies, and another locality paying off graduates’ student loans.

Stroud said he would support some type of similar program locally. He said it would be “a reasonable course for The Harvest Foundation to take” because it has the resources.

Wardi was the first in a series of speakers being brought to the area by the EDC.

 

 
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