The Sussex County Economic Action Committee (SEDAC) is all about economic development and all the things that we can do to bring jobs and opportunities to the people of Sussex County.
One of the activities that we initiated with the help of six of the eight school districts was a series of meetings with the schools and different business groups. As reported before, we have had one meeting with a group of water-industry people to discuss job opportunities in that area and what skills a high school graduate needed in order to be employed in that industry.
Our second meeting focused on the electrical industry. Delmarva Power, the Delaware Electric Coop and two IBEW Union groups, Local Union 126 — those who work on transmission lines, and Local Union 313 — those who electrify our homes and businesses, were kind enough to share their expertise with the six school districts present (Cape Henlopen and Laurel have not shown any interest in these discussions).
Delmarva Power provided information on an Energy Career Academy for grades 9 through 12 that would provide a pathway to employment within their electrical trades.
Give and take between the academic world and the employment world continued to be effective, but a problem surfaced with the Pathways program itself. The Pathways to Success Program is intended to provide a student with skills that could lead to a job after high school or assist them if they plan to go on to college to obtain that job skill.
As it was explained to us, here's how the program works: a ninth-grader is required to select a pathway and, once selected, will follow that path for the next four years. The commitment by the youngster is almost not reversible. It was clear that the school districts need much more flexibility then they presently have.
SEDAC will join with the districts who want our support to see that the flexibility to address the needs of our young people are met. Dover bureaucrats need not control the great work that our local educators are presently doing.
A second problem that was discovered deals with the opportunity that exists for young graduates to become truck drivers. This is not a local problem but one that can only be fixed with a national solution.
To get a CDL license needed to drive a truck across state lines, one must be 21 years of age. Delmarva Power, as an example, provides services in three states on the Delmarva Peninsula. If you are 18, no need to apply there. In what universe is it right that an 18-year-old can buy an AR-15 but can't drive a truck across state lines?
There are literally hundreds of truck driving jobs presently available in Sussex County that remain unfilled because of this law. We are told that there are efforts in Congress to correct this problem. Anyone want to bet that happens?
We have also become aware of a third problem that affects not only young people but those that would seek employment through the certificate and certification programs that are provided by DelTech.
Certificate programs are those that one would take for a very short period of time that could lead to immediate employment. As an example, one could get a certificate in QuickBooks that could lead to employment. A certification program takes longer, but the successful applicant comes out of school with an individual skill that enables one to apply for a job with special requirements (as an example: health care, advanced manufacturing or information technology).
We have the SEED program that assists our high school graduates with college tuition, but we have very little available to the non-college-bound high school graduate.
The length of short-term training programs can range from between three to 18 months, yet students currently cannot use federal financial aid for the majority of these programs.
Students with financial need are eligible for a scholarship award of up to 50 percent of tuition for these programs; however, these funds do not always cover unexpected life occurrences that impact their ability to complete their program, such as unfunded tuition, fees, books and supplies, housing expenses, emergency car repairs, heating and electricity bills or even basic needs, such as clothing and food.
That's where the community comes in. Scholarship monies awarded to local high schools that go unused could be made available to DelTech to help solve these problems. These funds could still be awarded specifically to a particular school district but with flexibility so that Del Tech can reach out to those who would seek to stay in Sussex and help develop skills that will pay them a salary that's not just good for Sussex, but good anywhere.
None of these problems are insurmountable, but we all must get involved to remove these barriers to success and give our young people the opportunities that they need to be successful and the jobs in Sussex County that will allow them to stay in Sussex County.
Joe Conaway is chairperson of the Sussex Economic Development Action Committee.
By Joe Conaway
Sussex County Economic Action Committee