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Summit plots workforce strategies

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John Chaffee, president and CEO of the NCEast Alliance

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BY AMELIA HARPER
Staff Writer

Friday, August 10, 2018

TARBORO — Business leaders and educators from the Twin Counties and beyond converged on the campus of Edgecombe Community College on Thursday to discuss how the two groups can work together for the betterment of the community.

John Chaffee, president and CEO of the NCEast Alliance, the lead economic development organization serving Eastern North Carolina, was the keynote speaker at the Twin Counties Education and Business Leaders’ Summit. The summit was organized by the Strategic Twin Counties Education Partnership, or S.T.E.P. 

Chaffee urged educators and businesses to work hand-in-hand to solve the critical issues affecting the local economy and workforce development.

“With the announcement of new jobs in the Twin Counties, a wave of excitement has been created. However, there is also a sense of urgency with educators and industry to prepare the needed workforce,” Chaffee said. “Our region already suffers from a skills gap, not unlike others around the state and country. While there is a chronically high rate of unemployment, many jobs still go unfilled.”

In addition to increased communication and engagement between business and education leaders, Chaffee suggested multiple strategies to help narrow the skills gap, many of which were discussed by panelists during the three-hour meeting.

Chaffee suggested that schools make internal improvements to encourage better education for students in the Twin Counties. Several business panelists at the summit cited low test scores as one of the key obstacles for attracting business and skilled labor to the area.

“We have to start at the elementary level. Waiting till middle school or high school is too late to prepare these kids for future careers. We have to find ways to make education relevant to them,” Chaffee told the Telegram in a later interview.

Chaffee also said adult education needs to be more of a focus. Adults who are limited by poor reading skills need to be identified and helped. More adults also need to seek community college degrees, he said.

Chaffee suggested that more employers provide work-based learning opportunities for students through apprenticeship and internships. He also said businesses need to help support school efforts to provide instruction in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.

A panel of educators discussed “Workforce Development and Preparation: Cradle to Career.” During the discussion, educators shared the struggles they are facing and their continuing efforts to prepare students for current jobs and jobs of the future. The need for the development of soft skills such as critical thinking and collaboration was also a topic of discussion. 

Education panelists included Dr. Bill Carver, president of Nash Community College, Dr. Harry Starnes, vice president of instruction at Edgecombe Community College, Dr. Valerie Bridges, superintendent of Edgecombe County Public Schools, and Dr. Shelton Jefferies, superintendent of Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools.

A panel of business professionals also discussed the topic of “Creating a Strong Talent Pipeline through Collaboration.” The discussion mainly hinged on ways to create work-based learning opportunities for students as a recruiting tool and increasing ways to build collaborative partnerships with educators in the community. 

Business panelists included John Judd and Tahirah Smith of Cummins Rocky Mount Engine Plant, Joel Lee of Edwards Inc., Dr. Richard Alston of Alston Orthodontics and Scott Fleming of Keihin Carolina System Technology.

One of the most common obstacles to the recruitment of talent to the Twin Counties, panelists said, is the notion that there “is nothing to do in Rocky Mount.” However, the panelists all agreed that situation is changing and that public perception needs to catch up with reality.

One of the biggest drivers of change in this respect has been the development of the Rocky Mount Mills. Jim Goodmon, chairman and CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Co., ended the summit by sharing what drew him to Rocky Mount and the development of Rocky Mount Mills.

“There is a feeling here that people here are working together to build a better future,” Goodmon said.

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