Education can unlock the crisis

Nov. 5, 2008
Contributing Editor Joel Leonard says it's time to fill our public airwaves with encouragement and inspiration.

I recently attended a development summit in an economically challenged region of our country. In these rural counties, the unemployment rates are at 10% and 12%. A community college hosted the summit, and the president privately shared with me that he had only three graduates of the industrial technician program. Despite the demand for workers with these degrees, the school can’t get enrollment up in the electrical, mechanical and electronic programs.

During the summit, I met a recruiter from an energy company who said that he’d love to help this economically distressed region, but his company requires applicants to take a basic math test that only a few candidates from this area have passed. This recruiter isn’t only trying to fill open positions, he must find a capable workforce to fill the pending boomer retirements and also begin identifying qualified candidates for a new nuclear power plant. He said he’s frustrated because the local colleges want to help by offering classes, but the stigma of not working in an office has cut off the supply of academically capable candidates. Unfortunately, those who are interested often don’t meet the academic prerequisites.

To compete and flourish in a global marketplace, educators need to realize that increasing class attendance and the number of graduates isn’t enough. We need to raise communal education levels. We need more than just an educated workforce — we need an educated community. We need a strategy to target people where they eat, play and even pray. The more the community’s collective knowledge increases, the more it will realize new economic opportunities.

For example, last year at the Toronto MainTrain Conference (, I passed by the Hockey Hall of Fame and saw announcements about game schedules and hundreds of fans wearing hockey jerseys and tuques. One of the attendees asked if I was a NASCAR fan because I’m from the south. I responded by saying that NASCAR in the South is like hockey in Canada. Whether the residents are fans or not, there’s a barrage of information about each sport, and those who live there often know more about it than they want to.

The same is true about celebrities. We can’t turn on the television without getting Britney Spears or Paris Hilton updates, whether or not we want them. If there were a celebrity knowledge test, without studying, we probably would score well just from being bombarded with continual celebrity news broadcasts.

For our communities to flourish, we need to develop partnerships with the media and other community supporters. For example, local television stations could provide regular profiles on the opportunities for workers who use PLCs, CNC, plumbing skills and other high-demand functions. The “Tom Joyner Morning Show” regularly broadcasts my interviews and plays the maintenance crisis songs. As a result, more people appreciate and understand the role of and opportunities in maintenance.

This past summer, I shared an idea with the management of a water park that has more than 5,000 kids in attendance each day to begin broadcasting math questions on the loud speakers. Next year, those who provide the right answers will receive coupons at the concession stand. Exercises like this can help keep kids’ math skills sharp and foster a hunger for knowledge even as they play.

I encourage technical schools to work with amusement and water parks to set up display booths and help recruit future students so that area employers will have an adequate number of qualified workers to replace the retiring boomers. Believe it or not, as I’m writing this, the local news announced that four high schools in the Charlotte area are going to introduce a motor-sports engineering class to generate a workforce for the NASCAR teams. But, more important, students are working to develop a hunger for engineering knowledge that could be transferred to other fields.

Finally, educators are realizing that making education fun will help generate the attention and excitement that attracts students and sparks interest in other critical areas.

If more communities partner with their media outlets and constantly dispatch technical information and opportunities, host a variety of technical seminars, and work with restaurants to provide discounts for passing technical and math tests, and if area churches encourage youth to pursue technical education, we’ll not only have a capable workforce, but prosperous communities.

E-mail Contributing Editor Joel Leonard at [email protected].

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