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South at crossroads – Call for leadership, teamwork

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By Todd Cohen

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The South has enjoyed unprecedented growth because of digital technology and global markets, but will fall behind if its leaders fail to plug its poorest citizens into the new economy, a new report says.

“The new economy has created thousands of jobs and improved economic opportunities for the people of the South,” says Ed Bishop, research director for MDC Inc., a Chapel Hill think-tank that prepared the report.

“But many people and places in the South are not well positioned to progress in this era of globalization,” he says. “Many people will stumble and falter if its leaders do not address the region’s education, technology and business development changes.”

In the report, The State of the South, the region emerges as two distinct yet interconnected societies – one urban, high-tech, well-educated and ready to handle change, the other rural and lacking the training, skills and flexibility needed to find and keep information-age jobs in a global economy.

Jobs grew faster in the region than throughout the U.S. in the 1980s and 90s, the report says, but that growth took place mainly in a handful of cities that now dominate the economy.

And while the South has cut its dependence on low-paying industries such as textiles, tobacco and furniture and added millions of new jobs in services, retail and durable-goods manufacturing, the region isn’t equipped to grab new high-tech jobs, the report says.

To keep thriving, MDC says, the South needs strong leaders who can move beyond their traditional turf to work together to create good jobs in the global economy and prepare workers who can fill and keep them.

MDC recommends, for example, that:

* Businesses help create “public strategies, especially where market areas – and their resulting economic and social issues – cross political boundaries drawn in an earlier era.”

* Education leaders team up with government officials and business executives and commit themselves to “educating all our people” and increasing access to education and raising expectations for student performance.

* Philanthropies and nonprofit groups “must help shape the public agenda by identifying long-term trends and needs, advancing potential solutions and advocating for those left behind.”

* Government must collaborate across local and state lines in efforts to educate people, build “infrastructure,” develop policies and coordinate action.

“The South’s leaders must recognize that the region’s economy has grown more complex, more diverse than it was a generation ago,” the report says. “That complexity, along with demographic shifts that alter the culture of communities, makes the task of leadership difficult yet critical.”

For a copy of the report, call (919) 968-4531.

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