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Building a Strong Workforce

A healthy local economy has one major driving force behind it: a strong and educated workforce.

Skills learned by students at our county’s 35 schools prepare our children and young adults to continue their education, whether by seeking a degree at Northern Arizona University, Coconino Community College or vocational training at multiple other institutions.

Such institutions are critical to ensure community members have every opportunity to seek an education that advances their future. As they advance their skills and schooling, it’s not only an investment in their personal future but one for the entire community.

A sound education system builds a strong workforce, which is an asset sought by companies looking to expand in cities and communities nationwide.

However, as we all learned with the recession that struck in 2008, even an educated workforce can be devastated by a turbulent economy. That year, as the housing bubble burst and the national economy went into a dive, companies froze wages or laid off workers and families cut spending.

As the worsening economy played out globally, its impacts were felt at home. The state unemployment rate rose from 7.1 percent in 2008 and peaked at 10.8 percent in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unfortunately, several of our own county residents were not immune from job cuts. Within the County, the unemployment rate topped at 11 percent in January 2010 and has steadily declined to 8.1 percent as of August.

While several employers slashed jobs, the County’s Career Center was at the forefront with programs to help stem local job losses by aligning laid off workers with job prospects. In addition to providing interviewing techniques and resume tips, the Career Center utilizes its Rapid Response Task Force to work with employers facing an imminent reduction in workforce.

The Task Force provides career counseling, job search assistance, local labor market information and other tools to quickly get affected employees back into the job market. The Career Center also recently secured a $513,000 grant to support local manufacturers by investing in technical training, internships, equipment and education for premier manufacturing employers. The grant was made possible through a partnership with the Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. NACET is using Career Center resources to build the capacity of their Core Simulation Lab, which offers research and training tools for local manufacturers and provides youth with exposure to a variety manufacturing and biology-related careers.

Through the grant, the County financed 12 students to complete the Introduction to Manufacturing course developed by Coconino Community College. The week-long course focuses on the basic elements of manufacturing jobs. Grant funds are also being used to invest in internships and company-specific training directly with local manufacturers.

While investing in workforce and professional development is important to the local economy, equally as important are our local schools.

Over the past six months, the Coconino County Superintendent of Schools Office has been awarded more than $2.2 million in grant funding to benefit professional development for the County’s teachers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

These funds ensure our children receive a cutting-edge education, as does the County’s continued investment in early childhood education. The Superintendent of Schools Office has had success with its “Ponderosa Baby College,” a course that brings the science of early childhood to parents and community members, to show how the educational system can promote economic mobility.

In its finality, Baby College will serve as a first-step to an early childhood infrastructure that will be backed by scholarships to allow children to attain a quality early childhood education. The County Superintendent of Schools Office continues to partner with other organizations to offer programs benefiting our children, including those seeking their diploma in juvenile detention.

The end goal is to pursue innovative ways to advance our children, which benefits our families, communities and local workforce. By investing resources, our communities are better prepared to weather any economic storm that may be looming over the horizon. FBN

Mike Townsend serves as interim county manager and is a life-long resident of Flagstaff. 

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