Valdosta Daily Times

April 19, 2013

Chamber summit opens development discussion

Low job retention prompts ideas, solutions

Jason Schaefer
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — The Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce led a discussion Thursday morning in the ballroom of the Valdosta State University Student Union on methods for the development of education and the workforce in South Georgia.

The discussion followed an informative presentation that showed Lowndes far behind other “peer and aspirant communities” in the South in job development.

Lowndes County tied with Georgia’s Floyd County and Louisiana’s Rapides Parish for 11th out of 15. Warren County, Ky., placed at the top of the list, with Clarke County, Ga., second, and Houston County, Ga., third.

The numbers report was delivered by Dr. Attila Cseh, VSU associate professor of economics, and took a glance at “people indicators” such as population growth (21.3 percent for Lowndes County), citizens older than 25 holding bachelor’s degrees (22.4 percent) and the 2011 poverty rate (27.1 percent).

The study compared these numbers against “job indicators” like median household income in 2011 ($34,252 for Lowndes), average weekly wage ($584 per week) and the unemployment rate (9.3 percent) to come to the conclusion that Lowndes is lagging in workforce achievement.

Following the report, the audience of about 100 shared ideas about how to combat the problem. Each table of about eight was asked to work in groups to come up with their own unique solution. Most answers seemed to point to a single question — How does one teach entrepreneurship?

Radio personality Scott James of Talk 92.1 then led a panel discussion with educators and community-builders including VSU President Dr. William McKinney, Wiregrass Georgia Technical College President Dr. Ray Perren, Chamber President Myrna Ballard and Industrial Authority Executive Director Andrea Schruijer.

“The jobs are out there, but bringing people into our community is the difficulty,” Schruijer said, adding that there is an ongoing discussion between the Authority, the Chamber, VSU and Wiregrass, local governments and other entities to solve this problem.

Responding to a question about fielding criticism, Ballard said, “Dogs don’t bark at parked cars, but are we going to park the car? Do we say we’re satisfied with what we’ve got?”

McKinney said the reasons for low employment are linked to the number of college graduates in the community interested in continuing their education while they work.

“What you find is that more and more employers are looking for people more willing to continue learning for the rest of their life,” McKinney said. “At VSU, we hope that what you major in gets you that first job. But you’re always learning. There are millions of jobs nationwide and not enough qualified applicants.”

As technology continues to change, technical college education must adjust to meet the needs of local industry, Perren said.

“Technical colleges are no longer trade schools,” Perren said. “We still teach trades, but those trades are technological. You have to have a skill set where you solve problems with technology.”

Ballard criticized the distribution of information that would negatively affect the community, saying “things that happen here are spread around Georgia.”

“I think we take VSU and SGMC (South Georgia Medical Center) and Wiregrass for granted,” Ballard said. “We think they’re not going anywhere, and they don’t need our help, but that’s not true. We need to make sure we take none of our economic engines for granted.”

From a development standpoint, prospective industries searching for a location often consider income, according to Schruijer.

“We market our unemployment, we market our low wages, because that means we have an available work force,” Schruijer said.

About personal criticism, each panelist had their own answer. Schruijer said she expected at least a little bit of criticism with every project. McKinney said higher education thrives on it. Perren said, “The two easiest things to do are to quit and to criticize.” Ballard said she has never been criticized.

Following the panel, Lowndes County Board of Commissioners Chairman Bill Slaughter and Valdosta Mayor John Gayle took the stage to share their opinions. Slaughter emphasized that governments and boards of influential institutions across the county are part of the first step to finding a solution.

“We have to be able to look at the issues and work together on solutions, looking at the big picture. We have to move forward on things we can correct. Valdosta is no longer local; now we’re regional,” Slaughter said.

Gayle called Valdosta “the greatest community in the world,” and shared that the culture and the economy are why he chose to move here.

“We’ve got a great group of leaders, and I’m amazed at the intelligence in this community,” Gayle said. “We’re about to be a test city for partnership.”

Gayle said there have been studies done for the development of a public transportation system, but that initial projections showed a loss of $1 million a year. He also explained that Valdosta City Schools could use a boost in retention, with the graduation rate from Valdosta High School hovering at around 55 percent.

“We need to increase that graduation rate so we can attract industry,” Gayle said.

Regarding the campaign for the seventh cycle of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST VII), Slaughter responded that passing the tax was “extremely important in this community,” and Gayle agreed.

“SPLOST is a lot better than us raising the taxes and raising the water/sewer fees,” Gayle said.