Campaign Begun To Develop Workforce

Published 5:04 pm Tuesday, December 13, 2011

FARMVILLE – Many children believe workforce development means Santa's hired more elves at the North Pole for his global deliveries on Christmas Eve.

And a globe was front and center on Friday as the Farmville Area Chamber of Commerce began what it hopes will be a meaningful conversation on workforce development leading to meaningful results.

But there were no visions of sugarplums dancing in anyone's head among the 30 community leaders gathered by the chamber to begin the discussion.

The globally competitive nature of economic development is cold, hard reality, not the stuff of dreaming fantasy.

“Our economy's gone through some pretty tremendous changes, both globally, nationally and locally, in the past few years, which has had tremendous impacts on our workforce,” chamber chair Rucker Snead told those in attendance. “In turn, these changes are impacting our community and quality of life.

“So in reaction to those changes it's time we start looking at them,” he continued.

Not watching passively, however.

Nor with unreasonable expectations over what any flurry of local activity might do to shape events overseas.

“We can't control what is happening in the world. We have to deal with it reactively,” Snead said. “However, we can influence our workforce. We can help prepare our workforce so that they are ready to deal with the changes today and tomorrow.”

That was the point of Friday's meeting.

The goal is to help implement meaningful workforce development based on the community's future needs, advancing economic development by focusing on people rather than businesses.

“We've got a topic that the (chamber) board thinks we need to start a conversation about,” Snead said, noting plans for follow-up in the spring. “We invited you here today because you are a leader in the community and you play a role in our workforce development efforts in a number of different ways; some play multiple roles.”

The next concrete step, Snead advised, is to complete a community survey that maps out the topography of workforce development. “Some kind of instrument that we can get out to our employers so we can start working at those issues. What are our needs? Once we can start to identify those we can start making sure we're working to do that.”

He suggested that a working group would meet in the spring to address the survey results and help plan effective responses to the collected information.

Among those gathered around the table at Friday's initial meeting were Longwood University president General Patrick Finnegan, Cumberland County School Superintendent Amy Griffin, Prince Edward County School Superintendent David Smith, Prince Edward County Administrator Wade Bartlett, Town of Farmville Planner Cindy Morris, Centra Southside Hospital vice-president of finance and operations Bill Bass, Cumberland School Board Chairman Lee Dowdy, Cumberland County's director of economic and community development Greg Baka, Stanley Ragland with the Virginia Employment Commission, Al Roberts, Paula Gastenveld and Dennis Smith from Southside Virginia Community College, the Town of Farmville's director of Public Works Robin Atkins, and Commonwealth Regional Council director Mary Hickman.

“So why this topic and why today? It's important. It's something we need to start looking at as a community and I want to stir the pot a little bit,” said Snead, who is director of career development at Hampden-Sydney College.

One of the points that bubbled to the surface was served up by Moton Museum executive director Lacy Ward, who suggested that any survey also inquire into “what the needs of the community are that might be met with an entrepreneurial nature.”

Ward's point was to help create new businesses and new business owners, new employers, in addition to developing a workforce for those employers already in business.

Nodding, Snead replied, “that appears to be one of the keys when you look at other economies that are thriving.”

Prince Edward County's 10 largest employers are Longwood University, the Prince Edward County Public School system, Centra Health, Wal-Mart, Hampden-Sydney College, ARA Services, Inc., Holly Manor Nursing Home, Crossroads Services Board, Immigration Centers of America, and Trinity Mission of Farmville, according to the chamber.

The 10 largest employers in Cumberland County are the Cumberland County School Board, the County of Cumberland, Gemini, Johnny R. Asal Lumber Company, Covance Research Products, Crossroads Services Board, C.F. Marion Trucking, Human Resources, Inc., Appomattox River Company, and Cumberland Restaurant LLC, according to information provided by the chamber on Friday.

One of the major challenges in workforce development is the percentage of area residents-in eight counties-that do not have a high school diploma, on average about 33 percent, versus the state average of 18 percent.

As the workforce development discussion unfolds the chamber is hoping to embrace all relevant partners.

“We tried to reach everybody,” the chamber's president, Wanda Whitus, told the attendees, before asking for advice on who else should be brought into the conversation.

“This is all new to us,” she explained before stating the campaign's ambitious goal for the Farmville area. “We want to be on the map…When a business comes to Virginia and says 'We want to put a company here' we want (the state) to say, 'We've got just the location…There are workforce training programs in place.'

“Anyone who can help us with that mission,” Whitus said, “please let us know.”

A Christmas wish list that has nothing to do with elves but everything to do with delivering in a global market.