More than 100 students gathered at Ashland Community and Technical College two weeks ago to demonstrate their skills in the trades as part of the Skills USA competition.

They competed against one another in the fields of carpentry, electrical, welding, automotive services and computer aided drafting. They were each judged in categories specific for their field -- in carpentry it was, for example, accuracy of the build, cuts and measurements.

“It helps build their confidence,” said Jerry Yates, senior representative of the Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters (IKORCC), regarding having the kids compete in the trades competition.

“And it lets them actually practice what they’ve been learning in school... then when they come out and try to get a career as they graduate, if they want to pursue one of the apprenticeships, especially one of ours, (having participated is) a leg-up so to speak,” he said.

Mr. Yates is right about preparing kids for the future, and we reported on this story because it is an important one. From a distance, it might seem like just another well-intentioned competition aimed at educating. There is, however, a bigger picture perspective needed when it comes to Carter County and the new American economy. Specifically, it is our belief the programs in our local school system as well as the ones at our institutions of higher learning — the programs that teach kids skills in the trades, and boosting their confidence to pursue such careers in high-demand, good paying positions -- represent about the best bang for the buck you can get when it comes to your public education dollar.

In April 2018 National Public Radio reported that many jobs in the trades can pay more than $50,000 a year, and many of the positions offering such a solid wage can sit empty for months. Construction, along with health care and personal care, will account for one-third of all new jobs through 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There will also be a need for new plumbers and new electricians, NPR reported, noting there will be “68 percent more job openings in infrastructure- related fields in the next five years than there are people training to fill them.”

This brings us to an important point when it comes to economic development for Carter County. First, we all know that Carter

County can certainly use more higher-paying jobs and more job growth. There have definitely been improvements as of late when it comes to the county’s unemployment numbers. As of January the number was at 6.7 percent for Carter County. No doubt that the numbers have gotten better. The arrival of Braidy Industries in EastPark Industrial Center also holds huge potential for economic growth in the county. Recently Smithfield Foods announced it is investing in its plant operations in Carter County. The company is the manufacturer of Smithfield brand spiral sliced hams. Smithfield said it will carry out a $1.2 million expansion at its production facility in Grayson. The move is expected to create approximately 40 new jobs.

All of this points to the question -- how does Carter County prepare itself for this new economy? We all know the economic tides in America are changing. Rural counties can either change with them or be left behind. One way that rural populations can transition themselves is to increasingly emphasize educations of the youth that are anchored in science and math. This is already happening in our excellent public school system in the county. There is great work also being done at ACTC as well -- just one small example is the comprehensive program aimed at training future employees of Braidy.

There is also another way we can prepare as well and it is found in educational programs and competitions like the one at ACTC. Teach our local kids the trades. Prepare them for a future in these professions. And, it’s not just about making sure kids are able to one day make money. We also want them to stay here in Carter County, and when kids learn the trades, their is a good chance entrepreneurship will follow.

This is the key to economic job growth in rural America. It is, quite simply, ingenuity, combined with skills, combined with entrepreneurship. The ability of individuals to find a business area that needs servicing can create a successful business, and it is possible to do it right here.

Today we commend all those involved in the Skills USA. We commend our local educators for making it happen, putting kids in a place to succeed. Doing so helps craft a bright future for Carter County -- one that holds the potential for job growth, economic development and prosperity.

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