Congressional Hearing Addresses Higher Ed-Job Creation Link

August 18, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveWith Congress on recess, two members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation presided over a field hearing Tuesday in Greenville focused on higher education and job growth.

The event featured all the trappings of a formal Capitol Hill proceeding: a smattering of jokes, an array of assertions, a lot of talk – and little indication of what, if anything, might come of the discussion.

The hearing – a full-on public event – also took on a somewhat Orwellian feel when, as The Nerve was video recording it, a congressional press secretary said a policy prohibited attendees from filming the event in its entirety.

A panel of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce conducted the hearing. The topic was billed as “reviving our economy: the role of higher education in job growth and development.”

Shortly before the hearing began, Jennifer Allen, press secretary for the committee, approached The Nerve offering a news release and other background materials on the function.

Later, after The Nerve had been video recording the event for about 20 minutes, Allen approached again, asked whether The Nerve had press credentials and stated that committee policy disallowed filming of the full hearing.

Another organization was videoing it and would make the recording available online, Allen added.

The U.S. House Education Committee won’t let people tape a public field hearing? That’s open government?

That’s policy, Allen said.

The hearing took place at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research, a technology research campus based on a partnership among Clemson, state and local government and the private sector.

The university bills the International Center for Automotive Research (ICAR) as “a new model for economic development in South Carolina, matching Clemson’s strengths in automotive engineering with the state’s strong automotive economic cluster.”

U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican who represents the state’s 4th Congressional District in which the hearing was held, and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican who represents South Carolina’s 2ndCongressional District, presided over the meeting.

In between jokes about their ages, Gowdy and Wilson made opening remarks and posed questions to two four-person panels, whose members also began with statements for the record.

A few dozen people formed an audience watching and listening. State Rep. Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville, was among them.

Greenville Mayor Knox White, a member of the first panel, said in his opening remarks that partnerships were vital in a downtown revitalization that has taken place in the city and a vibrant manufacturing hub that has developed in the Upstate.

Both developments have been widely praised as major South Carolina success stories.

“We take partnerships very seriously,” White said, citing ICAR as one example.

He pointed to Proterra, a manufacturer of electric- and hybrid-powered buses, choosing the Greenville area to build a plant in as another.

White did not mention a state incentives package for Proterra that could cost as much as $40 million in corporate income tax credits and other freebies over 10 years. (The Nerve reported on that little detail in this story.)

Similarly, although the discussion at the hearing centered on what role higher education can play in creating jobs, the speakers were virtually silent on skyrocketing tuition rates at state-supported colleges and universities in South Carolina.

Since the 2001-02 fiscal and academic year, tuition at almost every public school in the state has spiked more than 100 percent, as this chart compiled by the S.C. Commission on Higher Education shows.

During his querying, Gowdy asked panelist Laura Harmon, director of a public-private workforce development organization named Greenville Works, what the government can do to improve its worker training efforts in a time of economic austerity.

“Don’t fund a training program that isn’t led by business,” Harmon replied.

She said many training initiatives are geared toward the career desires of their participants rather than the employment needs of businesses. “It really needs to be the other way around,” Harmon said.

Gowdy also asked Harmon about the idea of providing unemployment compensation to companies to retrain and hire the jobless rather than paying benefits directly to people out of work.

“I would have to explore that,” Harmon answered.

She added that “the unemployment system has a lot of problems” and spoke of an incentive for some people to stay on unemployment as one of them. But Harmon said it’s a very complex issue and she would have to give the idea some thought before rendering a judgment on it.

Other panelists included Clemson President James Barker, University of South Carolina Upstate Chancellor Thomas Moore and Greenville Technical College President Keith Miller.

In his beginning comments, Barker said it is more important than ever for higher education to work closely with government and business to prepare students for the future.

And he said “economic development is a contact sport” marked by fierce competition.

The other panelists also collectively emphasized collaboration and partnerships to succeed at it.

Winding down the hearing, Wilson underscored why it was held.

About 14 million Americans are unemployed, he said, adding, “This meeting is the only subcommittee meeting on jobs this week, possibly this month.”

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.