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Group says area must have better educated workers

July 02, 1997

By ELLEN LYON

Staff Writer

Even with a two-year associate's degree from Hagerstown Junior College and work experience, Darren Martin said he was turned away from several job interviews because he didn't have more education.

"A four-year degree is like equivalent to a high school diploma maybe 10 to 15 years ago," said Martin, a computer software specialist who lives in Hancock and works in Frederick, Md. "It's almost mandatory."

In the fall of 1992, Martin resumed his studies at Hagerstown Junior College, where he had earned an associate's degree in data processing four years earlier.

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This spring Martin, 28, graduated with a bachelor's degree in information systems from the University of Maryland without ever physically attending a class there, he said.

Martin took classes through the University of Maryland's Instructional Television System while sitting in a classroom on the junior college's campus off Robinwood Drive, he said.

This area needs more workers with Martin's qualifications in order to attract high-tech jobs and high-paying employers, according to consultants involved in developing the reuse plan for Fort Ritchie, which will close as an Army base on Oct. 1, 1998.

In a public presentation of the reuse plan, the consultants noted that the area has discouraging educational statistics and lacks a trained labor force.

The consultants cited Maryland Office of Planning statistics that show that only 11 percent of Washington County residents have bachelor's degrees or higher, compared to 27 percent of people statewide and 20 percent across the nation.

They wrote in their final report that "the available labor market in the region is likely to be an impediment to economic development in Washington County in general, and Fort Ritchie more specifically."

Educational opportunities are key to improving the work force and attracting new employers, according to the report.

Consultant Ellen Baer, of Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler Inc., in New York City, said she hopes that part of Fort Ritchie can become an educational facility to train local workers for high-tech jobs.

Some local business and educational leaders questioned the consultants' conclusions about the area's labor pool and noted that many educational opportunities already exist here.

"I thought they overstated the problem," Hagerstown Junior College President Norman Shea said.

If anything is holding Washington County back it's a "cultural lag" in the understanding of how important education is in the modern work force, Shea said.

"For the longest time you could make one fine living at Fairchild" and enjoy a middle class lifestyle without much education, he said. "That's gone and gone forever."

But Washington County residents are "catching up" in educational achievement, according to Shea.

The consultants "were accurate with the work force that is available (but) there's people out there who could transfer to a better job," Washington County Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers said.

"I would say we have an excellent labor pool," Bowers said.

There are plenty of people in the area qualified for high-tech jobs, he said. "You just have to go after them."

The consultants were "a bunch of New Yorkers (who) saw us as a bunch of country bumpkins," said Merle Elliott, president of the Hagerstown/Washington County Industrial Foundation, known as CHIEF.

The area has the resources to train people for high-tech jobs through programs at Frostburg State University and Hagerstown Junior College, said Elliott, a former chairman of the trustees of Hagerstown Junior College.

Hagerstown Junior College's "distance learning" technology offers students access to classes toward bachelor's degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park, in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and in business and management and computer science from University College.

Between 20 and 30 students have earned bachelor's degrees that way in the 10 years HJC has had the technology, Shea said.

Some classes are available at the junior college toward master's degrees in engineering, according to school officials.

The Frostburg State University Center in Hagerstown offers bachelor's degrees in business, accounting, sociology and justice studies as well as master's degrees in business administration and education, Director James Shaw said.

Eventually, the center would like to add computer science and engineering programs, Shaw said.

The number of students passing through the center has almost doubled since it opened in 1988 to 420 students this past spring, he said.

Martin said his bachelor's degree "has made me more marketable and competitive."

He has begun planning his next step - a master's in business administration through Frostburg's Hagerstown Center, he said.

New technology and the Internet are making higher education increasingly more accessible to rural areas, Shea said.

"South Mountain used to be a psychological and geographic barrier. It is no longer a psychological and geographical barrier," he said.

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