04/01/05 — Technical skills called key to development

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Technical skills called key to development

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on April 1, 2005 1:48 PM

NEW BERN-- The top priority for economic development in eastern North Carolina is training a technically skilled work force, say state economic experts.

"We'll need a tool belt of incentives to be competitive," said Kel Landis, "but first we have to have a skilled work force with 21st century knowledge."

Landis, a senior adviser for business and economic affairs for Gov. Mike Easley's office, was a panel member at an economic development forum held Thursday at the New Bern Riverfront Convention Center.

The forum was sponsored by the N.C. School of Government as a way for local governments to become more involved in the economic development issues facing eastern North Carolina.

"We want to make sure that local government is a part of the economic development solution, and not part of the problem," said Jonathan Morgan, an assistant professor at the School of Government.

Morgan said that economic development is not just about industrial recruitment.

Larry Moolenaar, the executive director of the Eastern Carolina Council, said that the eastern part of the state has to redefine its strategies and realize that it is a part of the global economy.

"We have to get over the idea that we're victims," Moolenaar said.

The eastern part of the state has been hit hard from the loss of manufacturing jobs and dwindling tobacco sales. Earlier this week, Congressman G.K. Butterfield told Wayne county officials that the eastern part of North Carolina which he represents is the 15th poorest in the nation.

Butterfield's district includes a portion of Wayne, along with Wilson, Green, Lenoir, Jones, Craven, Edgecomb, Pitt, Halifax, North Hampton, Beaufort, Gates, Washington, Perquimans, Pasquotank, Martin, Bertie, Hertford, Chowan, Warren and Vance counties.

Moolenaar said that most of the time people consider short-term goals when looking at economic development.

"We have to form strategic alliances and look at long-term goals," he said.

One of those long-term goals is developing what Moolenaar called "intellectual capital."

Landis said that there is a constant transition in industries and that to keep pace, the region must develop its training capabilities.

"The industries we're recruiting today are different than the ones we were recruiting five years ago," Landis said. "I wish we didn't have to play incentive games, but we do."

Goldsboro Mayor Al King, one of the members of the panel, said that North Carolina has ignored the economic impact of the military in the state for years.

But, King said, the formation of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission has helped bring that impact into focus.

"Once the governor saw the figures, we got his attention," King said. "Because in Goldsboro we get more than $1 million a day from the military, and all over the state it's $18 billion annually."

"That ain't hay," King added.

Scott Ralls, the president of Craven Community College, said that smart technology requires smart people.

"Of all our economic assets, the least mobile is that which can walk away," he said. "And that's our people."

Ralls said that community college programs, like Work Force Development, provide tomorrow's opportunities.

"And it's a full contact sport, which needs parents, community leaders and educators, engaged to see results," he said. "Because right now, I'm afraid that changes are occurring more quickly than we're talking."

Moolenaar said the state needs to concentrate first on the skill levels of employees because engineers, nurses, and medical technicians are needed.

"We have a history of looking at manufacturing jobs, but we have to think of higher technology," he said.

Landis said that there are "only so many buffaloes to recruit," so there should be a focus on small entrepreneurs and small businesses.

"We're limited only by creativity," he said

Moolenaar said that the eastern part of the state has many assets, including the military, as strong agricultural sector, good communities for retirees and an overall high quality of life.

"Expand what we have," he said. "And the entrepreneurial spirit is here, but not in higher technology."

Landis said that agriculture is changing, but it wasn't dead.

"And the motor sports industry provides 24,000 jobs," Landis said. "We have to make sure it stays here."