Sitgreaves 'Burger' comment aimed at lack of white-collar jobs

April 28, 2004


Update 2015: the same problem persists and is getting worse. Bristol VA/TN "invested" $150 million in public funds to underwrite two retail developments most which went into displacing other retailers and likely closing the Bristol Mall.

BLOUNTVILLE - Sullivan County has jobs that nobody is trained to do, and some people are trained for jobs that they have to leave the area to obtain.

That's the point County Commissioner Jack Sitgreaves says he was trying to make during a committee meeting earlier this month.

"I was in no way casting dispersions on the level of education at ETSU. When I said that "we have ETSU students flipping burgers," I was pointing out that we do not have the level of jobs in this area to sustain the number of graduates from our local colleges.

Therefore, they are forced to either leave the area or take what jobs are available to them, which in most cases are in the service area," Sitgreaves wrote in an e-mail to the Times-News.

At the same time, Sitgreaves maintains, the county is failing to provide the area with the skilled tradesmen it needs.

"My comments were in response to another commissioner who seemed to treat these jobs as lesser to those of a college graduate. It is this perception that deters our young people from seeking trade training. It is this perception we must change," wrote Sitgreaves.

There was a time, Sitgreaves said, when tradesmen were held in high esteem.

"The truth of the matter is it shouldn't have changed. If you're good at something, you should be held in esteem - whether you're a Donald Trump or not," said Sitgreaves.

"I think society needs to hold those people in the same esteem as we hold those with four-year liberal arts degrees,'' he said.

Erasing the stigma on vocational education and keeping college graduates in the area will require a two-pronged attack, Sitgreaves believes. "We're trying to work on one side to bring in white-collar jobs,'' Sitgreaves said.

"Secondly and, here's my point, equally important are those master trades," he said.

Sitgreaves believes the county should work to establish a strong, perhaps centralized, vocational school where highly trained and experienced teachers can arm students with the skills they need to move into these high-paying skilled trade jobs.

"I believe that education is there to provide our community with the talents that we need," Sitgreaves said.

If indeed the Sullivan County Board of Education chose to close North High School, for example, Sitgreaves said it could be utilized as a vocational school for students throughout the county instead of the county operating separate and fewer programs at each school.

"You could have 20 people in a class versus five. You'd have centralized teachers who are the most skilled and the most qualified teaching those students," Sitgreaves said. "It'd be a consolidation of the level of expertise in vocational training."

Most important, he said, an emphasis on vocational training may serve many students better over the course of their lives.

"Facts are facts. You know, of course, that the starting pay for a student with a bachelor's degree has dropped significantly over the past five to six years.

Compare that with either learning a trade (either in a vocational program or through an apprenticeship) or someone who goes to one of these master skills programs, and I believe you will find (the starting pay) is higher now," Sitgreaves said.

"In 30 years, will they belong to the country club? Probably not. But a high percentage of those other people aren't going to belong to the country club either," he said.

Sitgreaves pointed out that the County Commission puts $200,000 aside each year to furnish scholarships to Northeast State Community College.

"Rather than liberal arts students, maybe the county should designate that for higher level trade skills," Sitgreaves said.

Local colleges should play an integral role in the process as well, Sitgreaves said.

"We could, in fact, forge a partnership with Northeast State and allow it to return to its original focus. It is entirely possible to involve not only Sullivan County but other counties in East Tennessee,'' Sitgreaves wrote.

"The present system is an ineffective way to spend our tax dollars while not producing the desired results," he continued.

At the same time, Sitgreaves said, county officials need to work to bring more white-collar jobs to the area to stem the tide of young people leaving the region.

Sitgreaves said the inclusion of HoundDogs, Sitgreaves' University of Tennessee specialty stores, in an earlier Times-News article was "regrettable.

It seemed that it was stating that University of Tennessee was a better school in my mind than ETSU. This is not the case."

"I wasn't trying to slam them. I was trying to point out the sad plight of college graduates who would love to stay in this area but can't because the jobs they're trained to do simply aren't here," Sitgreaves said last week.

"The really sad part is that the way the article was written detracts from the real problems that we face in Sullivan County of lack of white-collar jobs and insufficient numbers of skilled tradesmen," Sitgreaves wrote.

Hundreds of people graduate from area colleges - like ETSU, Milligan, King, Virginia Intermont and even Carson-Newman - each year, he said, but few stay.

"I heard once that a good estimate is that 20 percent stay in this area. The rest have to leave to find good jobs. They are not staying here, and that's sad. That's really sad, and that's an area I've been trying to overcome for years," he said.

Copyright 2004 Kingsport Times-News.

Demeaning remarks

I read with dismay the comment attributed to Sullivan County Commissioner Jack Sitgreaves that one can either attend a vocational college or "you can go to ETSU and come out and work at the hamburger joints." As an ETSU graduate that has been quite successful, I am offended.

I would not have achieved the levels of income or employment that I currently enjoy save for the excellent education that I received at ETSU. The suggestion that the education that ETSU provides is worth little more than entry-level jobs is ridiculous. I don't disagree with the idea that vocational training is necessary for those without the skills or inclination to attend college.

There certainly is room for tradesmen of all types in our society. However, demeaning a local college and its graduates to make that point shows little class.

Someone who owns a chain of stores that caters to UT should have a better feel for the value of a college education, unless of course Mr. Sitgreaves believes UT graduates can be found at the local hamburger joints.

Mr. Sitgreaves' comments are indicative of a significant number of individuals here that support UT, a college that contributes very little to the Tri-Cities economy, while treating its local educational institutions - which support the local population with jobs and infuse large amounts of cash into the economy - as inferior.

If the point Mr. Sitgreaves was attempting to make was that there are limited opportunities for those with a college education in the area, I would suggest that rather than putting down a local institution that contributes greatly to the economy, culture, and diversity of the Tri-Cities, maybe Mr. Sitgreaves should take some of that spare energy and direct it towards recruitment efforts to bring industries to the Tri-Cities that can better utilize our graduates.

Joseph M.

Date Published: April 15, 2004 Kingsport Times-News