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Senator: Education best hope for region

U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va) stopped at South Boston’s ABB Inc. plant Friday morning to tour the manufacturing facilities before holding an employee town hall meeting that was open to the public. 

The visit came as part of a two-stop economic growth tour of the Southside region ending at Danville’s The Launch Place, a center for entrepreneurial development in Southern Virginia.

Warner’s visit focused on efforts being made to promote industrial advancement in the region, highlighting ABB as a model for future international industry settling in Southside. 

“We’re very happy being here in Virginia and in South Boston. We’re about 480 people today, here in South Boston. We plan to grow to be about 500 before the end of the year,” said Petter Fiskerud, senior vice-president and general manager of the South Boston facility. 

Following the tour, Warner held a town hall meeting with the company’s employees during which he described the efforts being made in Washington to promote economic growth.

“If Virginia is competing against North Carolina or California or New York, we do pretty well. If Virginia is competing against Korea or Canada or Mexico, it’s a lot harder because there’s no national support to supplement state and local economic development,” the senator explained.

“We’ve been trying to put a program inside the commerce department that would make it so that if it’s about bringing jobs back to America or if it’s a competition to get foreign-based companies to locate here, there would be a way to supplement the state and local government.”

The dilemma Warner described is one faced especially by international companies, like ABB, that look to settle in Virginia. 

“You all know, working for an international company,” he said, “the competition isn’t North Carolina. The competition is the rest of the world.”

Warner emphasized the importance of post-secondary education in adapting to a rapidly changing manufacturing job market.

“The textile jobs aren’t coming back,” Warner told the gathered workers. “What America’s value-add is going to be is manufacturing where the people like you bring extra skills to these jobs.”

The senator pointed out that a four-year college degree is not necessary to gain those extra skills.

“One of the best things we’ve got in Virginia is the community college system,” he said. “We’ve said that the only way to be successful is to get a four-year degree. That’s not true. But it does mean that you probably need something that’s beyond high school, whether that’s a certification or an associate degree.”

Education, however, appears to be the region’s best hope for promoting industrial development. When asked about federal support for Southside manufacturing infrastructure, Warner’s response offered little encouragement.

“There’s a series of manufacturing grants that are at the federal level, but in terms of total amount of dollars, it’s not much more than a hill of beans because we really have not had much of a national manufacturing strategy,” he said.

Addressing this gap is critical to securing more jobs, according to Warner.

“The best thing we can do for getting jobs here in this country is going to be to continue to focus on manufacturing, have a business plan for the country that invests in education and have incentive programs that continue to attract jobs here,” Warner said. 

The senator closed the town hall by advising attendees that the power to bring about the changes he outlined ultimately lies in their hands.

“The one thing that I’ve found is that there are more people of good will in both parties who actually want to get something done,” Warner said. “What it needs is an informed electorate. What it needs is all of us taking a risk.”