01/28/09 — Education, highways, military top goals for chamber coalition

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Education, highways, military top goals for chamber coalition

By Steve Herring
Published in News on January 28, 2009 1:46 PM

KINSTON -- State lawmakers Monday were asked to continue funding for early childhood education programs and the state's community colleges, to leave the state's Strategic Highway Corridor Plan intact and to make it easier for military personnel to make the transition to the civilian work force.

Those were the top goals pitched to legislators by 10 eastern North Carolina chambers of commerce during a reception at Lenoir Community College.

Local legislators said they like the unified approach taken by the Chambers of Commerce of North Carolina's Eastern Region, of which the Wayne County Chamber is a member.

But the lawmakers said a projected $2 billion to $3 billion budget shortfall will have to be dealt with first.

"I think they are worthy goals, but of course the challenge is going to be for us in this session, especially those (goals) that asked for additional funding or even present day funding -- I think it is too early to tell what we are going to have to do balance our budget and we are required to do that," said Sen. Charlie Albertson of Duplin County. "They are worthy goals and we will do our best to try and meet them.

"I think the regional concept is the right approach and one that needs to be taken more often."

Rep. Van Braxton of Kinston agreed.

"I think one of most important things is that we in the east have not been united in our plans and what we are going after," he said. "I think this approach, getting the eastern part of state all aligned on the same page and working for same goals, will help us stay focused on what we want to try to do in the east.

"Instead of having 10 different voices we will have one. Some of these (goals) are not very expensive, some will be tougher."

Rep. Efton Sager of Wayne County added, "I think it was well laid out by the Eastern Region. I think we can work with the Eastern Region on most of the goals. Hopefully we can move forward."

Mona Patrick of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce told the roomful of regional legislators and business leaders that there are more than 100,000 active duty military personnel in the state and that the number is on the raise.

She asked lawmakers for legislation that would allow the state to recognize military trade and license certification for similar positions in the private sector.

"Businesses in North Carolina are always looking for qualified employees to sustain and grow their businesses," she said. "Those who transition from the military are well trained, educated, talented and disciplined. These are the types of employees we want here in North Carolina."

At the end of the second quarter of 2008 about 5,600 individuals left the military in the Jacksonville area, she said. About 2,000 were reservists who probably had jobs back home where they came from, but that still left a "significant number of good individuals with good work ethics coming out of military," she said.

North Carolina has put tools in place to connect those people with businesses in the state, she said.

"However one piece of the puzzle that is missing, and that we think would make a tremendous difference in retaining these highly qualified individuals in North Carolina, is to make it easier for them to exit the military with trade and licensing certifications and to transfer these certifications as civilian workers," Ms. Patrick said.

For example, military personnel with the equivalent of a commercial truck driver's license would not be required undergo testing necessary to get a civilian commercial driver's license.

"A number of other occupations would benefit as well," she said. "It would support the state's claim of being the most military friendly state. I think this legislation will help us get the work force we need."

Suzanne Sartelle of the Greenville-Pitt Chamber of Commerce asked legislators for a law redefining the term "dropout" and to maintain the current level of funding for the More at Four and Smart Start programs.

"Education is not just the root of economic development, it is economic development," she said.

Ms. Sartelle said the more she had read the more confused she had become about the dropout rate. She said her husband, a former schools superintendent, had explained it to her.

The term, as currently defined, does not accurately reflect the true dropout rate, she said.

For example, even students who leave high school to attend a community college are counted in the dropout rate. Depending on the source, between 12.1 to 14 percent of the students who leave high school say they are doing so in order to attend a community college, she said.

She said the region wants the numbers to reflect reality.

There is no cost associated with that request, she said. There is with the second part of the goal.

"Do your best not to reduce funding," she said. "In light of the economy we did not ask for any dramatic increase, but we do believe these very important programs, Smart Start and More at Four, need to be maintained at least at the level they are now -- More at Four at $170 million and Smart Start at $203.6 million."

She said the chambers had not taken a position on whether the two programs should be combined as some had suggested.

"We just take positions on that they should be funded and how important they are," she said.

Ed Wilson, former Wayne Community College president, said the chambers support the state community college's request for $60 million for its Creating Success campaign.

The campaign, he said, would target "critical areas" including faculty and staff salaries; technology and equipment; critical careers in health care, industry construction, engineering and transportation; and customized training programs.

"We believe the key to economic development and more and higher-paying jobs is a well-trained work force and that is the primary goal of our community colleges," Wilson said. "In these tough economic times North Carolina's citizens and businesses turn to the community college system for help."

The colleges, he said, are experiencing record enrollments.

"Community colleges can train or retrain students in a short period of time for jobs that are in demand," he said. "When plants close, community colleges retrain workers to return to the work force."

The colleges also can provide a low-cost avenue toward four-year degrees, he said.

"Businesses need help in developing a more productive work force and community colleges can provide for customized training to meet those needs," Wilson said. "But we cannot increase the capacity and enhance the quality of education without increased funding. North Carolina's economy depends on community colleges to provide training of world-class quality.

"This investment in community colleges provides the capacity to put people back to work and provide a skilled work force for economic development."

Lawmakers also were asked to leave the state's Strategic Highway Corridor Plan alone.

"Growth that the area has seen in the last 20 years has been wonderful, but with that has come more stress and strain on the highway system," said Kevin Roberts of New Bern.

The 2004 Strategic Highway Corridor Plan looked at roughly 55 highway corridors totaling 5,500 miles, he said. While those highways account for only 7 percent of the state's roads, they carry 45 percent of traffic in the state, he said.

"Stay true to the original integrity of the plan," Roberts said. "There is no need to redefine it or reinvent the wheel."

"You have heard our pitch with one voice, but representing expectations of many," said Bill Naumann, chairman of the chamber coalition.

The goals reflect reality and the group tried to request ones that are "doable," he said.

Naumann told legislators that the chambers were united in their expections of the high level of attention lawmakers will give to the goals.

"We have to think differently about everything we do," Naumann said. "We have to be more crafty."