More than 60 regional business, education and community leaders gathered for the Regional Education and Economic Development (REED) Summit on Oct. 16 at the Dahlonega Campus of the University of North Georgia (UNG) to discuss findings from three community-based REED task force meetings held this summer to identify barriers and opportunities to improve education and economic development.
REED was initiated by UNG President Bonita Jacobs, as part of the university's Complete College Georgia plan, to build collaborations and share successful community practices to increase educational attainment across the northeast Georgia region and strengthen the region's economy. Complete College Georgia is a statewide initiative to increase the percentage of Georgia's population with some level of college completion to meet projected workforce needs.
"Our university covers some 30 counties, and we are excited to develop opportunities in these areas," UNG President Bonita Jacobs said. "This summit is going to be the catalyst as we move forward in improving our college completion rate. We are proud of our region and we know we hold the clay of its future in our hands."
Three key themes were distilled from the summer task force meetings as areas of focus for the region: workforce readiness, including soft skills development; access to education at all levels; and partnerships and collaborations. The summit highlighted three case studies that focused on these themes and that leaders considered "gamechangers" for their communities.
Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County Schools, discussed the GeorgiaBEST (Business Ethics Student Training) program and how it is strengthening the curriculum and skillsets of students in Hall County.
"When we ask our businesses what kind of graduates they need, most of them say, 'Entrepreneurs, innovators and creators,'" Schofield said. "They are also identifying a lack of work-based or 'soft' skills in young employees, traits such as leadership and critical thinking."
Rhonda Samples, career technical and agricultural education coordinator for Hall County Schools, explained methods used in the program to build soft skills in high school students, such as monthly emphases on workplace standards, like discipline and character, and attendance and punctuality.
Other case studies focused on the development of the Washington Wilkes Career Center that increased access to education and the community partnership that resulted in the development of the Ty Cobb Regional Medical Center.
Jacobs told the group that the creation of UNG through the consolidation of Gainesville State College and North Georgia College & State University was also a gamechanger, noting UNG's four campuses and a broad geographic area of some 30 counties.
"We have an amazing opportunity to build upon our successful practices and partnerships to help this region's citizens and economy prosper," Jacobs said. "As a public university, supporting economic development is an important responsibility."
Mark Lytle, vice chancellor of economic development for the University System of Georgia, said the REED initiative is in perfect alignment with efforts that need to be made across the system to support economic development throughout Georgia.
"This is a unique opportunity to create a better quality of life for our children and grandchildren," Lytle said. "Forty-two percent of jobs in our nation are in companies with less than nine employees. This and our geographic diversity create a need for us to build entrepreneurship to drive business. We need to increase schools focused on business industries and create more opportunities for internships, and identify and pursue the skills possessed by a work-ready employee in this region."