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An educated workforce is crucial to our local economy

Len Stevens

We’re all in the business of improving our community. The successful graduation of students from our local school systems plays a key role in the quality of life and vitality of business here. Education and business are not separate islands unto themselves. Each respective set of statistics has an impact on the other.

From an economic standpoint, costs go down when people can take care of themselves. Rather than using tax expenditures to lift up the stragglers left behind, we can use taxes for programs that benefit the entire community. If Nevada could raise just male graduation rates by 10 percent, the state would save over $150 million every year.

The ability of our young people to advance in jobs and be independent, productive members of society, who do not have to rely on others to survive, is relative to education. College graduates earn on average $1 million more over a lifetime than high-school dropouts. More than 20,700 students didn’t graduate from Nevada’s high schools in 2009, amounting in lost lifetime earnings of nearly $5.4 billion.

The 2009 Criterion Referenced Test (CRT) scores showed that 62 percent of Washoe County high school students (49 percent of elementary and 47 percent middle school) are “proficient” in math. How many accounting firms and businesses in need of employees with solid financial skills do you think will be attracted to our area by those sorts of numbers?

The fact is an educated workforce is a leading factor in attracting top-tier businesses from out of state. And attracting these companies is even more important in today’s economic environment. Improving our graduation rates and developing an educated workforce has not been a high priority over the last decade or two. We’ve had the luxury of coasting on an economy with low unemployment and an abundance of jobs that didn’t require higher education.

In the past, Nevada has relied on gaming and construction, industries that do not require advanced education, to support the state financially through taxes. That has changed. Those jobs are being replaced. Corporations that are moving here and helping us grow are looking at the quality of education we offer for their kids, and they’re also looking for a quality pool of employees to recruit from. If we do not invest in our education system, it will affect our ability to attract the best corporations.

Here is another set of crossover statistics between the academic and business communities. It costs a mere $6,000 a year to educate a student. Compare that with the $26,000 it costs to incarcerate the same would-be student in juvenile hall and you can start to see the monetary benefits. Whether we pay to educate young people or incarcerate them, we are all paying for the decisions we make that affect the quality of education that we offer, one way or another.

Another big demographic in our area affected by that graduation rate is retired people. How does a higher graduation rate have a positive impact on individuals who are not technically “active” members of the workforce? Their thought process, for the most part, is that they have already taken care of their kids, the nest is empty and their responsibility towards shaping the next generation has ended. This is the furthest thing from the truth. As a member of the community, albeit retired from the business community, retirees continue to pay for the subsidization of fallout from a poor graduation rate, including welfare, crime and other hindrances to the quality of life and economic growth in our area.

What is our action as a business community? We need to understand that education is an investment in our quality of life. It’s just bad business to pay for it in a way that doesn’t reap economic rewards.

It is time for all of us to recognize the positive examples set by the Washoe County School District (WCSD), UNR, TMCC along with union efforts to stand united and change the statistics of our educational investment. They are working hard to improve our future workforce and we must support them. WCSD, for instance, is making a dedicated effort to embrace diversity in our community by offering English language learning programs to ensure that language barriers are not barriers to graduation and workforce success.

Our elected officials, current and future, as we approach a new electoral period, should also be looking at the education tools we have versus the ones we need to invest in our young people. Let’s ensure that we reap all the economic benefits of a high graduation rate.

The responsibility for following through, implementing them and ensuring that each student is successful, is all of ours. We may differ in areas of how we think a community should be, who should live here, and other personal preferences, but the bottom line is we have to deal with what is. As long as we are a part of this community we have to take responsibility for the quality of life in the community. What we do within the school system to ensure the success of our students will be reflected in the community. Every community needs strong support for educational development in order to thrive. When we make the effort, through time, money and attitude, to invest in education, we are setting the foundation for all-around growth versus creating career, economic, and social liabilities that will hamper our future success.

Len Stevens is executive director of the Sparks Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at 358-1976 or through the chamber’s Web site, http://www.sparkschamber.org.