Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Patrick County, Virginia: Education is Vital to Economic Development

Here is a statement by former Virginia Governor Gerald L. Baliles, who is the Chairman of the Patrick County Education Foundation. It speaks to the critical role of education in stimulating economic development.

"There was a time when Patrick County and many areas like it in rural Virginia thrived as agricultural and manufacturing communities. Tobacco, timber and textiles were our economy's mainstays. People lived off the land--by the sweat of the brow, the flexing of the muscle. The low-tech, labor-intensive industries of the "old" economy have provided a reliable, stable source of jobs and decent wages for many generations of Patrick County citizens. Physical labor has been the capital required for success while education, though "nice to have", has simply not been a necessity. In this environment, education became a low priority as both a work force and economic issue.

Today, it is clear that times have changed. The doors of our generations-old businesses and industries are now closed and locked, the lights turned off and most of the jobs have been lost to technological replacements or shipped off to places where labor is cheaper. In just a few short years, our region's richest resource, physical labor, has lost value and the economy, businesses and jobs it fueled are gone. In their place is the vastly different face of a rapidly transforming "new" economy fueled by the power of the mind, by information, knowledge, and education. In today's economy, knowledge is the new capital and education is now a critical necessity.

The impact of these changes on Patrick County has been profound. Not only are the reliable industries and jobs of our past gone, but we find that we are woefully unprepared for the demands of the new opportunities that will replace them. Because of inadequate attention to education, Patrick County ranks near the bottom of Virginia's rural counties in critical work force education and readiness measures--the percentage of high school students who go to college, the percentage of adults over age 21 who have a high school education, and the presence of effective, functioning work force training initiatives. In 2001, only 30% of the county's high school seniors took the SAT, 43% of adults over age 21 did not have a high school education and our county's workforce training programs were loosely organized and falling behind in meeting the demands of the new economy.

For those of us who love this beautiful rural mountain community, this realization is sobering. If we are to successfully bring new businesses, jobs and economic opportunities to our area and if we are to participate fully in this new knowledge-driven economy, we must rapidly shift our focus to education. Businesses of the new economy are looking for an educated, skilled work force--education is the key to economic growth. To succeed, we in Patrick County must change our culture to assure that education is seen for what it is...the key to the future. Raising the education attainment level of all our citizens must become our highest priority.

This is the challenge that the Patrick County Education Foundation has set out for itself and for our community. Our Foundation Board and staff are made up of people who care about the future of Patrick County and who are committed to bringing about the changes needed to assure our citizens of a bright future and full participation in this new economy. But for this to happen, we must act now. Our mission is to move Patrick County from its place near the bottom to among the top five rural Virginia counties within ten years in the percentage of high school students who attend college, the percentage of citizens with a high school education and the implementation of a working and effective program of work force initiatives.

Our mission is an aggressive one, yet having now reached the midpoint of our ten-year mission, we can already point to significant progress. Each of the Foundation’s three initiatives - College Access, GED Promotion and Work Force Training - are fully operational and returning good results. One especially notable achievement has been realized in our GED Promotion Project. Patrick County rose to second among 45 rural Virginia counties in the number of GEDs awarded per 1,000 residents during 2005. When the Foundation began, Patrick County was ranked 43rd. We are continually seeking ways to raise education and job-training levels of the County's adult population. Each year, the Foundation has launched new work force training programs and increased efforts to recruit even more adults into the County's GED program.

But this is just the beginning. There is much work yet to be done. The key to success will be the small but important steps that individual Patrick County citizens take--to complete their own high school education, pursue post-secondary education, participate in new work force training initiatives and encourage and support others to do the same. Through successful negotiation of these small steps, Patrick County will begin to attract the information-driven businesses and jobs that will help us build a bright future for all our citizens for many years to come."

Are your leaders doing what it takes to ensure that education is at the heart of your economic development strategy? Hopefully they are!

1 comment:

Parameddan said...

You make a compelling yet sobering point. I was raised in Patrick County and do wish the economy could support my return through jobs that do not require an hours drive. Unfortunately, I don't think this is a possibility without first rearranging the priorities as you have said.