01/30/08 — Leaders looking to future of region

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Leaders looking to future of region

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 30, 2008 1:46 PM

KINSTON -- Despite the acknowledgment of multiple challenges in the years ahead, officials from the 13 counties in central eastern North Carolina, including Wayne, seemed optimistic about the future Tuesday.

Meeting at the N.C. Global TransPark in Kinston, the group of elected, community college, economic development and chamber of commerce officials were gathered for the North Carolina's Eastern Region's State of the Region conference.

"I'd say it's still in an emerging state," said Wayne County Development Alliance President Joanna Thompson, reflecting on the morning's discussions. "But I think there's been a lot of work done on some foundations and on building some frameworks for where we want to go."

Still, there are potential obstacles ahead -- the biggest being workforce development, said Craven Community College President Scott Ralls, also the president-designate of the state Community College System.

It is problem that's highlighted by the coming retirement of the baby boomer population -- a phenomenon that's already beginning, he explained.

Soon, according to his statistics, the ratio between workers and retirees will be 2 to 1, much smaller than the 43-to-1 ratio that existed when baby boomers started working.

"What's going to happen is a workforce shortage that some say will be the worst in our history," Ralls said.

And the only way to combat it is to increase the number of students graduating high school, graduating college and entering the workforce with marketable skills -- a goal made all the more imperative by the global competition American students are now facing, he said.

"North Carolina competes against twice as many people from across the world as we did 11 years ago," Ralls said. "The bar is being raised constantly, and that's something we have to pay attention to."

But increasing demands in the classroom won't be enough, he noted.

Currently, too many students are being lost between the time their class enters eighth grade and the time it graduates college -- many of them with few or no employable skills.

"Our pipeline is broken and that just can't be anymore," he said. "We have got to pull people through that pipeline (of high school, community college and college)."

But once they do, those people also have to have the right skill sets, particularly in math, science and engineering related fields.

"If we're going to be rigorous and relevant to a new economy, we've got to step up to the challenge and I'm optimistic about eastern North Carolina," Ralls said. "Nobody's going to give us anything, but we're going to win it.

"There's a spirit in eastern North Carolina that I think is very unique. We know we've got problems and we know we have issues, but we're going to win those issues."

And it will be, at least in part, the Eastern Region's job to make sure its 13 counties are able to step up to meet those challenges.

To do that, explained Eastern Region President Al Delia, they will have to improve knowledge capacity, do better at innovation, improve the region's national and global image, market the quality of life and help counties and municipalities continue good governance.

In particular, he plans on helping the counties lobby the legislature for extra help with public school construction, transportation and road improvements, water and sewer expansions, waterway maintenance and tourism development.

And as they work on those things, Delia continued, the region will be focusing primarily on six target business clusters: advanced manufacturing, marine trades, life sciences (bio-technology, pharmaceutical and health care), agriculture and food products, tourism and retiree attractions, the military and defense-related industries.

Those are, officials agreed, areas that fit eastern North Carolina's -- and in many cases, Wayne County's -- strong suits.

"What's good for eastern North Carolina is good for Wayne County," said Wayne County Commissioner Jack Best. "I think the eastern region is on the right track and that's good for all of us.

"But there is always a long way to go. The road never ends. You've got to work on it every day."