South Georgia leaders look to bridge educational gap

Published: Apr. 30, 2019 at 7:15 PM EDT
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By: Emma Wheeler | WCTV Eyewitness News

April 30, 2019

VALDOSTA, Ga. (WCTV) -- Strong communities start with strong education.

On Tuesday, local and state leaders in business and education collaborated to improve the 'education and workforce pipeline.'

The Valdosta Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce, the Georgia Partnership Excellence in Education and local educators from both early and higher learning met Tuesday at the Valdosta State STEAM Center.

The goal of the meeting was to figure out how to work together to improve education at every step of the way, better prepare students for education, and eventually, help them be a part of a strong workforce.

The group talked about how successful communities and economies start in education, from before kindergarten through high school and college.

Valdosta State University is a major resource for Valdosta and Lowndes County, but one of the challenges the community faces is how to get recent graduates to stay.

"The introduction of a college-educated person into a community brings so much in the multiplier effect," said Myrna Ballard, President of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce.

Meeting organizers said investing in higher education can increase wages in the community, and in turn, increase tax revenue and boost economic growth.

With thousands of students graduating from Valdosta State every year, many of the students are taking their talents with them after graduation.

Kayla Campbell is a student at VSU. She said she's considering moving to Atlanta after graduation.

"I feel like I wouldn't have the opportunities that I could have anywhere else," Campbell said. "Valdosta is just not enough for me."

Student Vergil Stuart also said he's not considering staying in Valdosta.

"They just don't have everything I need," Stuart said. "I feel like it's a good place, nice for a college environment, but as a graduate, I don't think so."

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce expects there to be about 400,000 new jobs in Georgia in the next six years, bringing the total to nearly 5 million jobs. Many of those, experts expect to be in health care and technology, the two fastest growing industries.

But, officials said many of the jobs require higher degrees of education. State business leaders said there's a gap across the state between the jobs available, and the employees qualified to fill those positions.

"We do have a talent gap in South Georgia," Ballard said. "I think if we could keep every single VSU graduate here, it still wouldn't be enough to fill the demand."

The VSU STEAM Center works to prepare students of all ages for their future by providing learning and training opportunities.

"If we can have a work force that is work ready for businesses that might want to come here in STEM areas, then that can attract those businesses and keep people here," said STEAM Center Director Dr. Brian Gerber.

Gerber said while they encourage students to stay in the community after graduation, there needs to be a work force that supports them, especially in STEM areas. By developing that work force, it will, in turn, encourage more students to keep their talents in the area.

"If we can foster that kind of activity within our community, and we have a more educated STEM workforce, it attracts STEM jobs, they pay more, students will grow up and they stay here," Gerber said.

Meeting organizers said the ultimate goal is to fill in all of the cracks in the 'education to workforce pipeline.' The Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education calls it 'collective impact,' meaning everyone from early learning and post-secondary educators, to local businesses plays a part in investing in students and building a stronger community.

The Valdosta-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce has started a 'small business incubator' as another way to support young entrepreneurs and their businesses ventures. Officials said a strong, successful downtown can also help keep recent college grads.