What’s out there for our kids?

The Top Story by Chris Graham

Gary McQuain was a DuPonter – back when it meant something to say that, back when DuPont was a dominant player in the labor market in the Greater Augusta County area.

“My dad was a DuPonter, my brother was a DuPonter. And that was just something that we grew up thinking – that DuPont would be a good place to go to work,” said McQuain, who deviated from the DuPont route and grew up instead to become the superintendent of public schools in Augusta County.

Not a bad gig there, by any account – and it resulted, in large part, because McQuain, like many who came of age in Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro in the 1950s and 1960s, was expected to strive to do better than his parents and their generation, who it could be said had certainly done pretty well for themselves.

“I can remember discussions that I had with Dad. That was what they talked about – what the kids did,” McQuain said.

“It was a culture – it was just a different way of looking at life. And I don’t know whether we have those discussions at our plants anymore – I don’t have that connection like I once did. I hope we do. I just don’t know,” McQuain told The Augusta Free Press.

DuPont – now Invista – is a shadow of its former self in terms of its impact on the Greater Augusta labor market. General Electric, also a key player in the local economy into the 1980s, for its part, is gone.

Manufacturers have stepped in to replace those and the others that at one time made the Augusta market the industrial hub of the Commonwealth of Virginia – but things are clearly not what they were back in what people remember as the glory days.

While unemployment rates seem to indicate that things are going well on the surface, beneath that top layer, there are signs of the struggle that the region has been engaged in for the past 20 to 25 years. The average weekly wage in the Augusta region, for instance, is, according to the Virginia Employment Commission, right at about three-quarters of the state average.

VEC data also demonstrates the prevalence of jobs in the retail and tourism industries that gobbled up many of those displaced from the losses in the manufacturing sector.

The impact on the elementary-, middle- and high-school students of today who don’t have good-paying jobs at a DuPont or General Electric to look forward to is something that worries Dickie Bell.

“The majority of kids in school right now don’t have vision much beyond their high-school years. They’re not thinking about going into another job market. They’re thinking about what’s here. And they look around, and they see that there are a lot of limits on what they can do – and there aren’t a lot of career spots or great-paying jobs. I think that affects performance,” said Bell, an Augusta County high-school teacher and elected member of Staunton City Council.
“You know, the overachievers and the gifted students and the ones who are very ambitious are always going to be successful. They’re always going to be able to get out of a situation and get into a better one. But that doesn’t describe most of the kids. And most of the kids here, I don’t think, see the kind of opportunity for them being out there to motivate them to want to excel in the classroom,” Bell told the AFP.

Bell has been critical of the economic-development plan that Queen City leaders have been following for the past several years – which focuses on the further development of the retail and tourism sectors that traditionally lag behind the manufacturing and technology sectors in terms of the wages that they can provide.

“The powers-that-be have sort of pooh-poohed going after any manufacturing industry right now,” Bell said.

“I don’t disagree with that – because so many of those things are being outsourced and moved overseas. But for years and years, when I was growing up here, you had jobs basically in services like Western State, which at its peak was a huge employer in this area, and you had the manufacturing jobs – the Westinghouses, the ASRs, the DuPonts, the GEs. And those jobs aren’t there anymore – and I don’t think they’re ever coming back, at least not to this area,” Bell said.

“We need to refocus. That’s my opinion – bottom line. Our priorities need to be different – and I think we need to be spending our energy and our money trying to attract the kinds of business and industry that even if we get 100 jobs instead of a thousand, they’re jobs that allow people to make a decent wage,” Bell said.

Lorie Smith, who served as the chair of the Waynesboro School Board and now sits on Waynesboro City Council, would like to see a similar reordering of priorities in the River City.

“We as a city and as a city council, I think it’s important that we continue to focus through our economic-development plan to try to bring jobs and to try to structure our environment here in Waynesboro where we will be offering those jobs that are more globally competitive in the market – and those salaries that enable people to work here and live here,” Smith said.

“When we get kids coming out of high school and college here, it would be extremely beneficial to all of us if we had a job market here in Waynesboro that could sustain their employment,” Smith said.

“I think that these two sides have to mirror each other in our vision and in our strategic planning for where we head,” Smith told the AFP.

That is easier said than it is accomplished, of course – given that it’s far from being true that Augusta, Staunton and Waynesboro are the only localities going through these kinds of growing pains right now.

But given the stakes – and the headlines in the local papers that almost daily have teens and young adults being arrested and incarcerated for drug crimes and gang-related crimes, and the ongoing issue that we have here with teen-pregnancy rates that in Waynesboro are still well above the state average – it is something that will have to be accomplished.

“I’m afraid that the window of opportunity that we have to capture some of these opportunities is closing on us,” Smith said.

“We’re going to have to work really hard – and it’s going to take an understanding that people can’t live on retail wages, that a family of three or four can’t live on retail wages, and that we’ve got a housing market, of course, that’s continuing to increase,” Smith said.

“We have a burden to understand that once the schools are doing what they need to be doing, on our side, we need to make sure that we’re creating an environment that can better utilize the skills of our young people. It’s incumbent upon us to make that a priority,” Smith said.

(Originally published 08-07-06)

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