A roundtable discussion on economic development turned into a discussion of vocational education opportunities last week. State officials and local entrepreneurs alike see the two issues as inextricably linked.
Sisters Economic Development Manager Caprielle Foote-Lewis facilitated the roundtable with Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown and small-business advocate Ruth Miles at Lakeview Millworks in downtown Sisters. Lakeview Millworks owner Brad King kicked off the discussion by outlining his plans for the future of his business.
Lakeview Millworks sells custom doors and windows out of its offices and showroom in Sisters, and operates a manufacturing facility in Lakeview, Oregon. King wants to establish a manufacturing facility in Sisters - and provide vocational training to local students in school and immediately post-graduation. King noted that first-year college "washout" is a growing problem - which was confirmed by high school student Tristan Lewis, who was in attendance at the roundtable.
"A lot of people from last year's graduating class are back from college - can't afford it and are looking for jobs," he said.
Secretary of State Brown said that such stories are a statewide, indeed national, phenomenon.
"It's a big-picture issue," she said.
She noted that state goals are for every student to have at least two years of post-high-school education.
"If that's our expectation," she said, "those first two years of college or vo-tech training should be free... High school is just not enough. There's got to be training post-high-school."
King cited two factors that inhibit his plans for a facility in Sisters - access to funds and suitable sites in Sisters. He said that industrial space in Sisters is both expensive and restrictive regarding allowed configurations and uses.
Ruth Miles, who works as a small-business advocate in the secretary of state's corporation division, encouraged King to explore partnership opportunities with Central Oregon Community College. Such partnerships for vocational education are taking off across Oregon.
"Community colleges have access to grant funds that you'd never be able to have access to," she noted.
She also suggested contact with the Governor's Regional Solutions Team, which is interested in creative ideas to stimulate economic activity and educational opportunities.
Mayor Brad Boyd encouraged King to discuss his plans with the City, believing there may be access to funding available.
Doug Mohr, of Mohr Solutions, also has an interest in educational opportunity. Mohr's business, recently relocated to Sisters, is a critical power and telecommunications integrator working with companies such as CenturyLink, Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless, and BendBroadband. They also do energy-efficiency and alternative-energy (off-grid) projects.
He noted that there are no education programs on the east side of the Cascades to train the skilled tradesmen who work in his field. Mohr Solutions projects bringing 50 jobs to Sisters.
Other discussion revolved around streamlining small-business communication with state agencies. Boyd, speaking as a business owner currently involved in moving his business, said it's difficult to know what state agencies have to be dealt with - and one agency won't tell you that you need to talk to another. Another attendee suggested creation of a "master application" that would cover all the relevant jurisdictions - an idea Brown said she likes a lot.
King recounted vital help he received from a state bureaucrat in the depths of the recession - an attitude that was willing to look at the circumstances, not just technical requirements of the rule book - and he encouraged Brown to continue to focus on real needs on the ground.
"It's a human element that comes into play here, and that's what we've got to pay attention to," he said. "We need to have a humanitarian approach, not necessarily by-the-book, by-the-book."