No place for dropouts

Training, education play key roles in revival of Southern Virginia’s economy

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by Aaron Kremer

There’s a constant din in Essel Propack’s Danville factory. Machines the size of small cars gobble up pre-printed plastic sheets bearing colorful labels such as Crest and Banana Boat. Every second, molded tubes for toothpaste or sun block pour out of each machine.

The noise is music to Southern Virginia’s ears.

India-based Essel Propack chose Danville for its first American plant five years ago because it is close to one of its customers, Procter & Gamble’s toothpaste filling plant in Greensboro, N.C. Since then, Essel Propack has announced three expansions at the 107,000-square-foot plant, which now employs 249 workers.

After losing thousands of factory jobs with the closing of textile and furniture plants, there’s been a big push in Southern Virginia to retrain workers. That’s helping the area recruit new industries such as Essel Propack. New businesses and expanding businesses in the region, which includes Danville, Martinsville and South Boston and Pittsylvania, Henry and Halifax counties, created about 7,700 jobs in the past three years. Unemployment remains high by Virginia standards (6.4 percent in August for the Danville metro area, more than twice the state average), but the rate is down from double digits 10 years ago.

Many displaced workers often aren’t immediately prepared to run the complex machinery of modern factories. That’s why training and education are playing a central role in the revival of Southern Virginia’s economy. The region is providing facilities for specialized job training programs and offering residents more access to higher education. And regional educators are working with economic development officials. The partnership creates a win-win situation.

Educated workers help attract new employers, officials say, and new employers in turn create a demand for more educated workers.

Evidence of Southern Virginia’s new economy abound. Near Essel Propack, construction crews have built much of the 1 million-square-foot Swedwood North America plant. It will produce furniture for IKEA’s American stores and create 740 jobs in the Danville area. Yorktowne Cabinetry, which opened in the Danville area last year, will eventually employ 540. Arista Tubes, a sister company of Essel Propack, occupies 112,000 square feet of the 152,000-square-foot former Dan River Accessory Building and employs 145.

Many of the new plants require workers with specialized skills. “When you look at the trend occurring in manufacturing, the jobs that are staying in the U.S. require a high degree of skill and computer interface mechanical aptitude to keep a machine running,” says Danny Moore, plant manager for Essel Propack. “Of course, they’ve also got to have discipline.”

Discipline was never the region’s problem, and it retains a reputation for having hard workers. But in old-line manufacturing, high school dropouts still had job opportunities. That’s not the case anymore. Now educators and factory bosses say a GED is the bare minimum, but soon that won’t be enough.

A few miles from Essel Propack’s factory, Danville Community College’s $3.7 million Regional Center for Advanced Technology and Training (RCATT) facility, which opened in 2005, sits on a perch above Route 29. Inside are gleaming blue machine terminals similar to those used to run equipment at Essel Propack’s plant. Instructors from RCATT teach former textile workers and recent high school graduates the technical skills of new manufacturing on the blue units. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which has a plant in Danville, also uses the center to train its worker when it adopts new technology.

RCATT teachers also offer classes at Danville Community College on the softer skills necessary in Southern Virginia’s changing economy. Those include customer service skills for retail. Economic development officials realized residents were driving out of the area — to Roanoke or North Carolina — to shop. So they recruited big-box retailers and specialty stores for the 550,000-square-foot Coleman MarketPlace. As part of the deal, officials must help provide a skilled work force. And so RCATT offers classes on work ethics, social skills and customer service.

But RCATT’s role isn’t just instructional. It’s also a key part of the pitch to companies like Essel Propack and IKEA, the parent company of Swedwood North America. “It’s something that distinguishes us from the competition,” says Carlyle Ramsey, president of Danville Community College.

That competition, according to economic developers, comes from other mid-Atlantic states such as North Carolina and South Carolina and abroad from China, India and Eastern Europe. (IKEA has another gigantic plant in Poland).

Robert Spekman, a marketing professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, says localities intent on attracting new businesses must spend heavily upfront to keep up with the competition. “It’s an arms race. But if you don’t put those buildings in place, then you don’t get to sit at the table,” says Speckman.

Educators in Southern Virginia are often part of the economic development team. Danville Community College instructors, for example, traveled to Sweden and Poland to visit with IKEA executives. Gerald Sexton, a former training manager at Goodyear who now teaches at Danville Community College, went along to help establish a new training curriculum. “We met with corporate executives in Sweden to put together a formalized training plan that would outline the next step and determine how involved we would be in setting up the training,” says Sexton.

That competitive difference that Ramsey talks about is also on display a few hundred yards from RCATT at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research. Completed in 2005, it’s a $20 million shiny glass and steel building that houses Virginia Tech scientists and state-of-the-art classrooms. Not all the space is being used yet, but economic developers say it’s a concerted step to help bring more science labs to the area. This effort would help shift the economic base toward higher-paying jobs in science by first attracting research, with labs and spin-offs to follow. “Now we have a lot of scientists and engineers discovering Danville,” says Jeremy Stratton, Danville’s new director of economic development.

The institute offers remote learning opportunities from various state and national universities online and through video conferencing. Students can earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in subjects as varied as engineering (from Virginia Tech) and forensic science administration (from Oklahoma State).

Southern Virginia also has pushed to establish a new four-year public college, hoping to raise the percentage of adults in the region with bachelor’s degrees. Currently, about 11 percent of residents have degrees — far lower than a statewide average of about 33 percent. The commonwealth, however, says the local population would be better served through smaller education centers that could issue degrees on behalf of the state’s existing universities.

The Southern Virginia Higher Education Center in South Boston and New College Institute in Martinsville offer a variety of degree programs. Some classes are taught on campus by faculty from universities around the state. Others are conducted over the Internet.

The Southern Virginia Higher Education Center also is training local high school teachers on how to teach Advanced Placement classes. The program is funded through a federal grant that previously helped students in Dallas improve their college placement by 500 percent. “If we don’t tackle K-12 and help them, then in 25 years from now, we’ll be going through the same remediation process we’re going through today,” says Ted Bennett, executive director of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center.

A similar push is under way in Danville. There educators are trying to change a longstanding mindset that high school dropouts still can get good-paying jobs. “We want students to know that they have the ability and the aptitude,” says Sue Davis, the superintendent of Danville Public Schools. “It starts with technology. We have students using computers at 4 years old.

“What we’re trying to do is raise the community level of expectation for our students and young people one child at a time — making children more aware of the choices they have and working with them to develop their strengths and their weaknesses.”

Sometimes education is an economic stimulus itself. Schools need professors and support staff. A four-year, private liberal arts school called Founders College (after the nation’s founding fathers) opened this fall in South Boston. The for-profit school enrolled 12 students. Tamara Fuller, the founder, president and CEO, says she wants to have 750 within five years. She chose South Boston over beachfront property in Maine because of the pro-business atmosphere, she says. The school tried to get property in Campbell County, but supervisors there wouldn’t rezone the land. Berry Hill Plantation, a former conference center in South Boston, was for sale.

“Colleges and universities create $42 million on average per year in the communities in which they’re located,” Fuller says. “That includes employment, purchases of goods and services. For a town such as ours, that only has 7,000 people, that’s huge.”

Despite a new college and new manufacturing plants around Southern Virginia, evidence of economic distress remain. Stanley Furniture in Martinsville is laying off 250 workers. A number of storefronts in the area are boarded up. But downtown Danville shows signs of the region’s transformation. A row of converted tobacco warehouses boasts offices and residences. A greenway is proposed along the Dan River to include a walking/biking trail and parking.

In one of the warehouses, Luna nanoWorks uses high-powered microscopes and equipment designed to split molecules and recombine them in new ways. The company, a division of Roanoke-based Luna Innovations Inc., opened in 2004 and has 30 employees. Part of the appeal for Luna was the speed at which Danville was willing to build out the facility, says Charles Gause, the company’s vice president of corporate development. But knowing the community colleges were churning out qualified graduates who could work immediately as lab technicians was another plus.

Gause is now one of Danville’s biggest cheerleaders. Besides recruiting scientists, he’s been known to help spouses find work. Gause also has become a vested member of the community. He gives tours to elementary schools and has an internship for area community college students.

“Tomorrow’s work force is 10, 11, 12, today. We’re trying to get them excited. We’re telling them that if you go to the institute and get a Ph.D., you can come here and work for Luna. You don’t have to work in manufacturing. You can start here and work in high-tech research.”

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