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Leaders look at programs to improve region's economy and its workforce

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

SIKESTON -- Education and business leaders from around the area gathered Tuesday night to discuss workforce needs in the Bootheel area, and what sort of long-lasting programs are needed to help accelerate the economy.

About 30 people were present at the Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development Initiative meeting. Seven forums will be held around a 14-county region, to determine the best way to use a $5 million grant awarded last summer. Tuesday's forum was for those in Stoddard, Mississippi, New Madrid and Scott counties.

"This is mostly about relationships," said Janet Witter, WIRED initiative administrator. "Without the efforts of the entire community, it's really not going to have the most impact."

Tony Maltbia, director of the Sikeston Career and Technology Center who has been involved in the initiative, agreed.

"What it takes to make a whole community run are business, education and industry," said Maltbia. "Without one of those links, the community does not work right."

Witter said the basic idea of the initiative is to develop the economy of the region through its workforce. The Bootheel region, one of only 30 in the country to receive such funding, looks to accelerate the transition from a traditional agriculture-based and old line manufacturing to one that embraces innovation in new markets.

The acceleration includes four areas: business productivity and economic development, skills of current and dislocated workforce, skills of emerging student pipeline and entrepreneurship. There were also some target industries -- advanced manufacturing, healthcare, alternative energy, tourism, and logistics -- although Witter said the initiative will support industries outside of those.

Meeting attendees watched a short video, which Witter described as "putting the changing economy and workforce into perspective." The highlight, which several people voiced afterward during discussion groups, is that the workforce changes so rapidly, educators are training students for jobs that don't yet exist.

Random discussion groups included education and business leaders, as well as local students.

"We want the input of our students," said Missy Marshall, executive director of the Sikeston Area Chamber of Commerce. While in the groups, she urged people to think outside the box and to consider all of the 14 counties, not just the Sikeston area.

Witter agreed, and said this grant "is not designed to be random acts of improvements." What organizers are looking for is a unifying vision and something that can be measured -- as well as continued and self-sustaining after the three-year program.

Discussion topics centered around students as the future workforce -- what skills and abilities future workers will need to be successful, how the workforce can be developed, how to keep talent in the area, and what issues can be tackled locally now.

Communication skills are a must, participants agreed. "Not only verbally, but also in writing -- and I think in more than one language," said Steve Borgsmiller, superintendent of Sikeston R-6 schools. Problem solving was another important area.

Those attending the forum said that youth need to be encouraged and stimulated to develop the future workforce. One pointed out that not everyone is cut out for college -- and that there are several jobs where workers are needed in the area that don't require a college degree and still pay well.

Entrepreneurship was another big idea, in addition to taking advantage of assets in the community -- for instance, the cheap electricity rates in Sikeston.

Having a mentoring program and something to come back to (if a student goes into a different field than their parents) is something participants felt would encourage young people to come back or stay in Sikeston. "They need something to draw them back," one participant said.

There's no specific timeline for when changes and tangible results will be seen.

Witter said that an implementation plan is being finalized and will be turned in Friday. Once it is finalized, the committee will "get going" with the opportunities to work on and other activities, she said.

However, e-mail addresses of those who attended the forum are to be circulated to keep the lines of communication open. Witter said a Web site that will include information about the initiative, as well as forums, is being constructed as well.

Anyone who was unable to attend the meeting but wants to get involved can contact Witter at (573) 334-0990 or e-mail janet@job4you.org.