Change starts with strong education

Published 11:53 pm Friday, September 16, 2011

Education is one of the life bloods of a strong community.

It’s as critical, if not more so, than infrastructure and job development.

Thursday morning, on the Demopolis stop of the newly-formed Alabama Economic Development Alliance’s Accelerate Alabama program tour, education was one of several key items that would help and drive rural Alabama’s growth and development.

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The Demopolis Civic Center was the third of several “visioning sessions” scheduled around the state over the next several weeks. The goal of the sessions is to develop a strategic economic development plan for the state.

Tracy Sharp of Boyette Strategic Advisors led the session, detailing the four-step development process the state hopes to undertake and implement over the next several months. The visioning sessions are part of a larger process of competitive assessment for the state. Sharp spent much of the 90 minutes listening to the suggestions of an audience of about 40 business, community and governmental leaders from around the region.

Among the most common issues expressed was the need for better education and job training, stronger infrastructure in rural communities.

Chuck Smith, who represents Region 6 as a Workforce Development Councilmember, set the stage for the Black Belt’s largest need: career education. Demopolis Superintendent of Education Dr. Al Griffin said nearly 20 percent of jobs require a four-year college education while 65 percent require some kind of tech-training. “As a state, we’re failing 65-percent of our kids by not teaching them how to earn a living if they don’t go to college,” he added.

That’s staggering.

Alabama’s labor force is aging. The average age of skilled laborers is in their early to mid-50s. Career education classes have been among the first casualties of budget cuts, so that means we’re not replacing a soon-to-be-retiring generation of workers.

We have to slow that trend.

If we don’t, 10 to 15 years from now, there will be no skilled welders, no plumbers, pipe fitters and other craftsmen to help develop state growth.

What good is securing a major manufacturer if the skilled labor they need is near retirement age and there’s no development program in place to recruit young minds and hands?

A college education is important but more important is a good education. In most cases, the best education is one that teaches you how to earn a living.

That may be after four years of college selling insurance, running a bank or newspaper or shortly after high school in welding or auto-body work.

Larry Lee hit the nail on the head when he said, “Everything is geared to how well you do on the damn test rather than if they’re prepared for a good future.”

If our future leaders are prepared for nothing but to take and pass tests, have we accomplished anything? No.

Career education will be a large part of the future successes of Alabama and the Black Belt.

I hope Tracy Sharp, who led Thursday’s meeting is true to her word when she said this program was to be quickly followed by implementation.

A lot of good ideas were shared Thursday, and those good ideas will go a long way in pushing the state in the right direction.

Jason Cannon is publisher of the Demopolis Times.