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Cook column: ‘You’re in a different league now’

Workers in Rowan and Cabarrus need new mindset
How can the people who work in Rowan and Cabarrus counties make the giant leap forward into the world of biotech research and high-level job skills?
They’ll have to do more than take different courses in school. They’ll have to adopt a new way of thinking ó from a “hired-hand” mindset to a “hired-mind” mindset.
So said one of the members of a steering committee looking at this issue, the group working on the Cabarrus and Rowan Counties Educational and Workforce Development Action Plan.
The attitude fostered by generations of textile work ó you don’t need a diploma to get a job at the mill ó is light years behind the kind of career focus and ambition it takes to succeed in many of the jobs headed this way over the next 20 years.
Biotechnology is top of mind right now. But health care, motor sports and other sectors are growing, too.
Somehow public education is going to have to transform itself and its students ó at warp speed ó to fill those jobs.
But government seldom moves at warp speed.
Rowan-Cabarrus Community College has a good example. According to Tim Foley, vice president for academics at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, RCCC’s proposed building on the N.C. Research Campus is nearing reality. If the General Assembly funds the project this year ó and signs look favorable ó the college can break ground in a few months and open by fall 2010, according to Foley. Then, it’ll take two years to produce the first graduates of the newly centralized biotechnology program.
The first hired minds.
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If you need someone to communicate urgency about economic development, J. Mac Holladay could be your man. He is the founder and chief executive of Market Street Services, the Atlanta consulting firm working with the steering committee to form an action plan.
Some 2,000 new jobs will open in the next 30 months in Cabarrus and Rowan, Holladay told the committee recently. He led the group through a report that enumerated openings industry by industry. Employers already say they have trouble finding people with the right skills. There’s real concern that residents from these two counties won’t be able to fill the new jobs that are coming, and employers will recruit from the outside.
Educators and business leaders comprise most of the steering committee ó people who believe in high hopes. So they were receptive when Holladay said it’s time to stop talking about average.
“This place shouldn’t even care about average,” Holladay said. “You’re in a different league now.”
Heads nodded all around the room.
– – –
Where are the Rowan County commissioners when you need them? If some of them had been in on this discussion, they certainly could have come up with plenty of reasons to warm up to being average.
They allocated funds to bring the Rowan-Salisbury School System to the statewide average in local per-pupil spending this year.
Commissioner Jim Sides suggested aiming for only 90 percent of the state average, but the majority didn’t go for that. They also didn’t go higher in order to increase teacher supplements or hire technology facilitators, as the school board requested. They didn’t want to increase taxes unless it was for fire protection. Commissioners say taxpayers just can’t afford anything more; average is the best they can do.
– – –
Holladay was not talking about average spending, though. The committee is focusing on the “what”of education improvement for now. The “how” will come later.
Holladay was talking about average student achievement, and he quickly dismissed it. Averages are based on data with wide variances, high and low, he said. The community needs to strive for something that can’t even be calculated.
“You’re going to carry the high-tech sector in the Charlotte market,” he said. This will be “a major change in the whole economy of the region.”
And Holladay has been around. His firm has handled projects for cities as farflung as Austin, Texas, and Charleston, W. Va., with Greenville, S.C., in between. Clients includes entities in Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Virginia, Florida and Alabama.
“I want to know what it will take to have the best classrooms in the state in three years,” Holladay said. And not just in one school, he said, but all up and down the line.
He chuckled to himself and mentioned the title of a book by the late humorist Lewis Grizzard. “Shoot Low, Boys, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies.”
The message was clear. Don’t settle for shetland ponies.
Aim higher.
– – –
Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post. She is on the steering committee for the Cabarrus and Rowan Counties Educational and Workforce Development Action Plan.

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