“With the shifting economy, rising technological innovation, and growing demand for higher educational attainment, it is especially important that middle-skill workers attain the required set of skills needed to take advantage of the emerging job market. Increasing access to postsecondary education is important in order to better prepare our labor force and ensure they are employable in a job market that is becoming more complex.”

— Kyaw Khine, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia

Some 20.7% of the adult work force in Franklin County has a college degree or higher. That’s on par with Martinsville at 20.9%, and well ahead of Henry County, 12.8%. These latest figures from the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia highlight challenges for our county as the 21st century’s economy continues to unfold. Findings cited by this respected research center include:

• Jobs in three key fields nearly doubled in the U.S. from 1980 to 2015. They are: Educational services, health care and social assistance and professional and business services. Most jobs in these sectors require a four-year college degree and extensive training, according to a Weldon Cooper Center report.

• The national job growth rate for occupations requiring more sophistication in social and analytical skills was higher than all others.

• “Degree inflation” is a factor in the mix because more employers are requiring a four-year degree for jobs that previously didn’t dictate one. The reason? Companies want to ensure they’re attracting potential employees who possess not only “hard” skills, but also more sophisticated “soft” skills to bring to the job.

• Master’s degrees are being required for more jobs than ever, and their employment growth rate is forecast to be three times that of those requiring only a high school diploma. The projections through 2026 show that jobs needing a master’s degree will grow by 17%, a doctoral or professional degree by 13% and a college degree, 10%.

The latest figures from Franklin County High, the largest high school west of Richmond, show that a third of its senior class will attend a four-year college this fall, with another 37% attending a two-year institution. Clearly, it would seem, for the next generation to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex job market, we need more Franklin County students aspiring to attend four-year colleges and universities.

And this isn’t just up to educators or economic development officials. An important factor in all this is the matter of family support for a child’s college education. In Henry County, for example, many families for several generations have had the expectation that high school graduates stay at home to take hourly wage shift work. We’re reminded of efforts that have been underway in recent years in Henry County public schools to change familial attitudes about higher education and encourage more students to aspire for education beyond a high school diploma.

Here in Franklin County, our future economy will depend not only upon the efforts of our economic development officials and elected representatives but also upon a higher level of education for our workforce.

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