Local leaders took part in a “State of Surry” panel discussion at Cross Creek Country Club on Friday morning, including Surry County Economic Development Partnership President Todd Tucker, Surry County Schools Superintendent Dr. Travis Reeves and Surry County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eddie Harris.
Former Business Journal Editor Justin Catanoso led the panel discussion, with questions asked of each panelist.
Unemployment and poverty in Surry County
Harris described the economy in Surry County as “static” and said that although he doesn’t have all the answers, he wants to do the best he can to try to address the unemployment situation, which he described as the “biggest challenge we face.”
“We have a lot of challenges and basic common denominators, and one that keeps coming back into this is economic development. In N.C. the unemployment rate is 6.9 percent, but here in Surry it is 7.8 percent. There is also a median income disparity — the state average is $45,000 per year and in Surry County it is at about $36,000. The poverty rate here is higher than the state average by about two points at 18 percent.”
Tucker said he agreed with Harris. “Unemployment has been high for a long time, but we need to address that unemployment number, because the figures are misleading. Last year it was at 11.1 percent, and the most recent data shows it at 7.4 percent. Some would argue that is a drastic change, but people are dropping off the job roles; the labor force is getting reduced because people are aging out. The average age of workers in this county is getting older…it’s a competitive world out there and there is no silver bullet.”
Reeves said that the school system has a free and reduced lunch rate of 63 percent. “Unemployment impacts our schools, our counselors, social workers, teachers, principals, everyone, and what we find is that we have many parents who are working full time and have multiple jobs and many single parents and grandparents raising young folks, which does present many challenges.”
He added that one of the answers lies in education, and the school system must connect to the business world. “It is my obligation to open doors for students to see opportunities here in Surry County, and look at what skills are needed in the workforce and how we can apply and help them understand that there are opportunities here.”
Tucker also said education is an answer, but said he believes that is “filling the pipeline for the future” and one of the issues is there are jobs out there, but not enough people with the necessary skills. “We have jobs like welding, there is a national shortage of good welders, and we need those today.
“The white elephant in the room is folks’ ability or desire to work…you have to have that. We have jobs out there, but someone has to stand up and take a step, try something different. Get trained and learn new skills. Companies want skilled people who can pass a drug test…this is not just a Surry issue, but it is an issue, a social issue.”
Harris said that he felt “the more government gets involved, the more government throws around entitlements, unemployment checks to the tune of $550 per week or whatever, why be enthusiastic about working? There is no incentive to work when you can get $550 per week. As one who believes in limited government and marketplace and free enterprise, that would be my approach.”
State of education in Surry County
“Education is always a top priority,” Harris shared. “We spent about 33 percent of our $75.1 million budget on education and I’m quite proud of our three school systems.”
He added that they also “spent millions and incurred significant debt” to upgrade buildings and facilities for the school systems, and the list of priority needs are now “dwindling as far as capital needs go.” Harris said the next move is to “trim our school system debt and focus on what we need to do to make schools a big part of economic development.”
“We have a great relationship with our county commissioners,” Reeves added. “Mr. Harris, and Buck Golding, and the finance committee, they met with Earlie Coe and myself, and we had a frank discussion and I appreciate the time those two gentleman took…if you look at other counties you may see divisive relationships there, which is not healthy, but here I think our relationship is strong.”
Tucker added that education is essential for economic development. “One of the key things for us going forward in this county is an educated workforce. This is paramount and one of our number one pillars. We have to have good schools and we are very fortunate in Surry County with three school systems. You can compare our numbers against anyone and they are as good, if not better…this is important for attracting new business but also for existing companies.”
He said that the county “seems to have a skills gap right now,” with 413 jobs available online through ncworks.org, jobs that range from beginner-level up to managerial positions, and said that the average hourly wage in this county is around $14 per hour, which is “pretty low when you look statewide.”
Surry Community College plays an essential role in the future of this county, according to Harris, in training people for positions in Surry County. “Dr. Shockley is laser-light focused on industrial training.” He added that the commissioners “recently committed a half-million for capital needs at Surry Community College, and also gave them a quarter of a million to buy 50-some acres for expansion and a new entrance off of 601.”
Reeves said Surry County Schools is working hard to align the schools with the reality of the economic situation, so they can better prepare students for life after graduation. “There has never been a greater demand to line up what we are teaching with what the business community needs,” he said, and gave several examples about how the school system is doing just that — “teacher externships,” “creative scheduling with students through Surry Virtual Academy,” and partnerships with Surry Community College in the areas of advanced manufacturing, construction, health care, and digital media. Reeves said 120 students took 16 virtual classes this year, and around 200 are enrolled this time.
The biggest problem right now, Reeves shared, are state policies that are hurting the school system, and that in the past five years, Surry County Schools has eliminated 100 positions, while increasing the number of students. He also said that teachers have not had a pay raise for six years, so teachers who started out making $30,800 six years ago are still making the same amount today. “There was a one percent raise, but that raise was erased in the bottom line by the time they got their check.
“As business men and women, imagine trying to retain a workforce that has worked there for six years and you are paying the same as on day one, and on top of that there are more educational reform issues initiated at the state level, so they are doing more work with equal or less pay. Food and gas prices have increased, and their money doesn’t go very far, so we have teachers working second jobs just to make ends meet. Teaching is a noble profession and we should be exalting these individuals, paying and rewarding them. The state budget has really put a damper on teacher morale and North Carolina is losing quality teachers to other states.”
Economic development in Surry County
Tucker said that Surry County has good facilities and the right land, and he “would never downgrade any property owner’s property, because every one has a use and a benefit, but some of the facilities we have, the average age is over 45 years old, which makes it difficult when you are working to find a location for a modern advanced manufacturing company, if you don’t have the proper facilities to show them. The building is the initial ticket, the ticket to the dance, and 90 percent of folks we have looking want an existing building.”
Harris said it is the role of government to offer incentives to come to this area, but added that the county “has to have a good business climate” as well. “I ask companies why they want to come here, and generally we get three answers: number one is that North Carolina is a right-to-work state, geography is number two, and sometimes number one, and the third thing is education….Incentives can take on many different forms. My first reaction is ‘what do the incentives entail’ and ‘can we afford them.’” He also said that he is “not a big fan of incentives” but acknowledged that they are a “necessary approach at times.”
Reach Jessica Johnson at 719-1933 or on Twitter @MountAiryJess.