April 24, 2011
If you build it, they will come. In our region’s case, the must-build thing is a university. And “they” does not only apply to the students and faculty drawn to a local school, but also to businesses that will locate here because the region — with a university — can provide them with the human resources required to get the job done.
The recent announcement by ICF International, a Fairfax-based firm, to lease a $15 million operations center here that will employ more than 500 people is great news for all of us. And if we want to continue to attract employers — some who may need hundreds of employees, and others, who most likely will hire smaller numbers but present equally important economic opportunity for our area — we will need to ramp up the development of our work force.
Our region’s survival will depend on our ability to create a work force powered by people who not only have the experience for today’s in-demand work, but who have the skills to quickly retool for jobs that, at the moment, are nonexistent.
Right now we have the best chance we’ve ever had for developing the kind of higher education facility we need in Southern Virginia. A task force convened by the Harvest Foundation, educators and business and community leaders will soon begin reviewing proposals from several state-supported universities. With a green light from the statehouse, one of them will establish a new kind of school here.
The prospective “parent” university will build on the foundation we already have, the New College Institute, and take it to the next level by developing it into a branch campus. This 21st century campus will draw from the resources of the parent university to meet our region’s needs for growth and development.
The link between higher education and job growth here is critical. In just the past five years, there has been a huge shift in demand for better educated employees. Work places have changed. It’s no longer a top-down work world where the supervisor oversees an operation staffed by people who perform the same task all day. Much of that kind of work has been off-shored to regions of the world far from Virginia.
Success in today’s business now demands that workers on all levels join together to form teams to meet the needs of specific projects. While college of the past often prepared people to be the kind of supervisors who managed the work flow in factories and other kinds of organizations, college of today prepares people to adapt quickly to new technologies, to master new skills and grasp new knowledge. Today’s employees are key partners in creating new concepts and solutions.
A branch campus here will elevate our region’s competitive edge and prove to companies our commitment to providing a pipeline of nimble workers who can prevail in situations where there are a lot of unknowns. It will also strengthen the must-have incentives that draw a company to a region.
Though we already have great local resources in K-12 and community college education, a branch campus here will generate partnerships in education that will benefit even our youngest students.
Also, a branch campus will boost the vitality of our cultural and arts community, an important quality-of-life indicator that weighs heavily in corporate relocation decisions.
Another matter companies consider when they want to move or open a facility in a new community is the health of local commerce. Companies know that to compete for the best employees, the communities they choose to settle in must have attractive homes to purchase, stores that have the services and products people want, movie theaters and restaurants. A campus, with its students, faculty and employees, will boost all of these things.
Finally, not only will a branch campus here help us attract new jobs, it will help us retain jobs. ICF’s decision to relocate here will generate more than $125 million in annual economic benefit for our region. Through an extensive, extraordinary collaboration with individuals in state and local government and business leaders, we can celebrate this major development.
Yet, the work will continue with ICF and businesses already here because it is a lot easier to keep a company once it’s in town than it is to attract a new one. Companies do move on when a given locality cannot support their operations. Here again, the local branch campus will be critical in our efforts to provide existing businesses with the human resources and amenities that will be essential to their success, the same factors that will be key to our community’s progress.
(Mark Heath is president and CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. and is a member of the New College Institute board of directors.)
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