The House Rural Development Council will focus on jobs and high-speed internet access next week when it holds its second of five scheduled meetings this year.
This is the third year Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, has served on the council, which was established to address the economic disparity between rural and urban counties in Georgia.
Lawmakers created the Center for Rural Prosperity last year in response to some of the group’s findings.
The Tifton institution — which serves as an information and research hub — is publicizing successful projects in rural communities and connecting people across the state.
“The Center is important in getting jobs to rural areas,” Lumsden said. “One thing we do know is that relationships are central; relationships with industries, with trade organizations, with people who are decision-makers.”
Education was the theme for the Council’s first meeting, a two-day conference last month in Jasper. Lumsden said it’s clear there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution.
“There is no one thing, in and of itself, that is going to cure the problem,” he said. “We’re trying to brings all these pieces together.”
He gave as an example the proposal to expand telemedicine. That would ease the doctor shortage that makes industries shy away from rural areas and leads their young people to head for bigger cities.
“But you need rural broadband,” Lumsden said. “If you don’t have good access, how does that expand healthcare? And education — we have broadband at all the schools but students don’t have it at home.”
Council members heard during the Aug. 20-21 session from two dozen experts representing entities such as Voices for Georgia’s Children, the state Career, Technical and Agricultural Education division and Georgia School Boards Association.
“Education is the cornerstone to building a more robust economy in any community, so it’s essential to begin this year’s work by examining the educational needs in our rural Georgia areas,” Lumsden said.
Barbara Wall, state CTAE director, spoke of aligning school programs with the needs of local employers and new industries.
Rick Gobel, assistant principal and CTAE director at Pickens High School, followed with a look at the so-called “skills gap” — and the need to foster soft skills that boost employability.
Chief Turnaround Officer Eric Thomas led off a segment that emphasized soft skills and character education — work ethics, teamwork, organizing, communication and problem-solving — that help workers learn on the job.
Increasing the Georgia-grown products used in school cafeterias under the FeedMySchool.org program was touted as a win-win for rural areas by Jack Spruill of the Department of Agriculture.
And a host of healthcare organizations weighed in on ways to close that gap in schools. Lumsden said a pilot program is basing community clinics on school grounds. It primarily benefits the students, he said, but there’s a ripple effect.
“Sometimes it can prevent a child from being out of school and the parent from being out of work,” he noted.
Mental health guidance and intervention also is available onsite.
“There are so many components,” Lumsden said. “Really all of them have to be present to see some progress.”
The next session, set for Sept. 10 and 11 in Moultrie, will delve deeper into broadband access, workforce development, entrepreneurship, micro-loans and tax credits.
Of Georgia’s 159 counties, 120 are considered rural and 26% of the state’s population lives in rural areas, according to the Council’s reports.