The same day the Legislature convened for a mini-session that would end with Boeing announcing its decision to move thousands of jobs in South Carolina, a procession of cars and trucks paraded in one direction in Bennettsville. John Williams, the president and CEO of Domtar Paper Co., had flown in from Montreal to accompany local plant manager Bill Edwards and other dignitaries in groundbreaking activities for a new bio-fueled steam turbine generator.
It was a significant moment, which attracted so many business, education and civic leaders and plant employees, because it marks the local plant's foray into an economic and ecological mission that will impact the global economy and help the company thrive.
Through this project, heat that is being lost will be recovered to produce electricity that will reduce the cost of plant operations. The project also will help preserve local jobs, enhance economic development opportunities, produce enough electricity to supply 30,000 homes in this region and promote environmental protection, as the energy will be produced from a renewable resource (wood) that is carbon-neutral.
Just to think, a mill with this innovative, green technology mentality exists in a rural S.C. community, and has a worldwide economic influence. Products from the Bennettsville plant are shipped to 31 states as well as Europe and Canada
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As we left the groundbreaking ceremony, my seatmate and I exchanged comments about the intricate structures and mechanical systems that were situated on the plant site. He commented: "There had to have been some very smart people to design this operation." I concurred.
"Some very smart people" -the comment stayed with me long after I had parted ways with my new friend. I finally discovered why the phrase lingered so: My job as superintendent of education is to produce those "smart people" that my new friend alluded to. Education in South Carolina must be able to produce the "Domtar effect." All of our schools, no matter how rural, urban or in between, have to be of such quality that they produce the type of thinkers who are required to manage and grow globally useful industry like Domtar.
Each high school graduate contributes an estimated $290,000 to the economy over his or her work life. Each college graduate contributes an estimated $790,000. A high school dropout costs the economy an estimated $150,000 over his or her work life (for a total of $2.25 billion across the state over that period). There is a paternal relationship between high quality schools that focus on preparing students with the skills needed in the local market and a flourishing economy. In other words, such schools are the parents of a vigorous and growing economy. Industry such as Domtar seeks out these kinds of schools - schools that produce "smart people" - when it contemplates growth and development ventures.
Many economists believe that the national economy has stabilized and is positioned for a turn around within the next two years. But the new economy will demand a new set of minds and skills. I want the state of South Carolina and her communities to participate in this rebound. And schools - both secondary and post-secondary - will play a huge part in ensuring that South Carolinians will participate, that they have the appropriate set of skills and knowledge.
What we witnessed at Domtar the other day documents that the leadership at the plant is ready to participate in this new economy. On this side of the economic equation, we will be sure to produce a lot of "smart people."