02/07/08 — Improved schools will help businesss

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Improved schools will help businesss

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 7, 2008 1:47 PM

When Wayne County business and industry leaders began meeting more than a year ago, they were all motivated by a similar concern -- the inadequacies in the local workforce.

"We were hearing from local industries -- (human resource) managers and CEOs -- that they were hiring a lot of people who had diplomas, but they really weren't ready to go to work," said Jimmie Edmundson, senior vice president and city executive for BB&T Bank.

The problem, he explained, is that too many high school graduates are lacking even basic reading and math skills.

"We were having to look through a lot of applications to find people to fill the spots and in some cases, having to train them ourselves for the skills we felt they should have already acquired," said Wes Seegars, president of Seegars Fence Co. "It has been a problem for a long time; it's not just popped up recently.

"The level of technical expertise required at even general labor is more than before. The old skill set is no longer satisfactory."

And, they continued, when potential workers are lacking even the basic necessary skills, it makes it harder to recruit new industries and for existing industries to expand.

"I think it's safe to say that if we have a good workforce, it helps to retain existing industry in our community and attract new industry," said Tom Buffkin, president of Franklin Baking Co.

"Workforce is the No. 1 priority for any company," Edmundson agreed.

And in Wayne County, concerns about the workforce have cropped up during industry recruitment efforts, added Wayne County Development Alliance President Joanna Thompson, though she was not a member of the business group.

"We have never had an industry we were recruiting say to us they're not coming because of our school system," she said. "However, what they have told us is that the quality of our available workforce -- post high-school -- is not at a level they feel can make them successful.

"They say the product coming out of the K-12 system is not what they deem appropriate for their system."

But, she emphasized, those workforce concerns aren't noted by every industry and they're rarely the only reason for looking elsewhere.

"I don't want to make it sound like it happens all the time," Ms. Thompson said. "On the flip side of that, like with AT&T, they were very impressed with the technical skills of our workforce. And, even though they were looking at a 30-mile radius, that's still a good testament to our workforce."

Other concerns about the public school system, though have tended to manifest themselves in the decisions of corporate executives to not locate their families to Wayne County, she said.

"If you ask them, there are several factors involved, but one that has been listed is schools," Ms. Thompson said. "That's no secret."

But, Edmundson explained, the group is confident that with the business community, the school system and the county commissioners working together, they can begin to address both those concerns.

"However you evaluate our education system, I think we can agree that it can continue to improve," Mt. Olive Pickle Co. President Bill Bryan said.