WENATCHEE — Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib spoke at Wenatchee Rotary’s Thursday meeting at Red Lion Hotel.
He also met with representatives from the Chelan and Douglas ports, the city of Wenatchee and Wenatchee Valley College Thursday.
A few of Habib’s priorities are economic development, trade and higher education. The Wenatchee World caught up with him after the Rotary meeting to ask a few questions.
Wenatchee World: What role do you think Wenatchee Valley College plays in preparing students for the workforce, and what path do you think it should take?
Cyrus Habib: It’s huge that WVC is here. ... Nearly all the jobs that have been destroyed since the Great Recession are ones that don’t require a college degree, and nine out of 10 of the ones that have been created are ones that do. You’ve got over 90% more in wages for comparable workers in the same field — one with a college degree, one without. What they’re doing by focusing on some high-demand areas — the nursing program, for example, and their MA program, some of their manufacturing — these are all programs that not only are tailored to what the industries and what the economy calls for now, but we also know that they’re degrees that are not going to lose their value in the next few years. They’re going to be relevant, and that’s one of the things I look for with a college. Are they doing something where they’re just creating degrees tailor-made for one employer? You can imagine if they’d done that — maybe they did — for Alcoa, it wouldn’t be all that useful if you’re too narrowly trained. You want to be trained for the jobs of today, but with the credentials broad enough to allow you to move around in the economy. They really get that. My vision for them is that the more they’re able to expand access to new baccalaureate programs, this region really can benefit from more four-year degrees. I know that sometimes it can be a challenge to get critical mass for any one particular degree, but maybe some broader degrees. We certainly need that.
WW: What do you think is the biggest opportunity for economic development in the region?
CH: I think what makes the most sense is to build off of your strengths. Rather than saying, ‘Let’s try to be the next fill-in-the-blank,’ instead, let’s build off of the legacy of agriculture. There are a lot of value-added opportunities in tree fruit, in wheat, in agricultural production more broadly. That’s when you get increased job growth, is when you start having a greater part of the value chain located regionally. With respect to high-tech opportunities, I personally think what makes sense is to look at those tech opportunities that are ag-related or ag-adjacent for a unique value proposition that this region can offer. Related to that is to really look outward, to invest where possible in forging new international relationships, to identify investors who are interested in building some kind of a food-processing operation here. There was a point at which people said, ‘Let’s take potatoes and make them into French fries and sell them in Asia,’ and then that became a huge export for our state. There’s tremendous opportunities to do that value-added work, and I think looking for international partners is a great way to find capital.
WW: This area’s economy is heavily based in agriculture. What message do you have for local growers in relation to trade?
CH: Renegotiating and reimagining our trade relationships, particularly our most important one with China, absolutely should be on the table. That should never be taboo, nothing set in stone. But for the men and women that work in our agriculture sector who need to make plans a year or two or three years out — I mean, look at cherry growers. These are perishable fruits. You can’t warehouse these cherries for a year. No. 1, there’s a sane way to do everything in life and there’s many insane ways to do something. I think doing it on Twitter is almost always an insane way to do it, and then not consulting with key constituencies like our wheat growers ... hops, grapes, apples, cherries and so on. Not consulting and saying, ‘These are some ramifications that might affect you if we go this route.’ ... I just think that’s a model of leadership that I really don’t subscribe to. I think if you’re going to do something that’s going to affect the livelihoods of individuals and their families, that you owe it to them. They should not hear it after President Xi of China, and that’s what happened here. They heard about it after the Chinese government heard about it. For us in our state, the governor and I and the professional staff at Commerce and so on, they’re doing what they can do to preserve and even strengthen our relationships that we hope will lead to even new export destinations. One thing that’s clear is that we need to be even more diverse in our export destinations. We can’t be overly reliant on one or even a particular region. This is something that we’re working on actively to market, to share knowledge and information about the quality of what we’ve got.