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By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
    The city of Highland made progress on multiple fronts this past year that bodes well for the community’s workforce and quality of life.
    Assistant City Manager Lisa Peck says the city’s home buyer program was very successful, with evidence that home values are starting to rise and conditions stabilizing in the historic part of town.
    The Community Development Downpayment and Closing Cost Assistance Program aims to stabilize assessed valuation and preserve the older housing stock by encouraging homeownership in existing single family homes, using forgivable, five-year, $3,000 loans.
    “We had people who would not have even looked at Highland had it not been for this program,” said Peck, who plans to now monitor the investment and resulting benefits to the city.
    Overall, some $5.4 million was invested in residential properties in Highland during 2016.
    Highland has also seen a surge in commercial investment in the last four years, with an estimated value of $85 million.
    Looking ahead, Peck is now involved in a workforce development program in which employers, the school system and others are meeting to discuss local solutions. Among things underway are coding classes at Highland High School through Project Lead the Way, a respected national program that aims to transform the learning experience, Peck said.
    The city is helping with the cost of the program.
    During the employer meetings, “everyone agrees there are issues around the workforce and the ability to find qualified workforce. That is not a Highland-centric problem. The first meeting was to quantity and qualify what the issues are, and a survey was filled out. The second meeting will be to begin envisioning what the solutions look like. It’s going to come down to soft skills that need to be addressed, and to work ethic,” she said. More meetings are planned.
    Soft skills are such traits as professionalism, ability to learn, and ability to interact with co-workers and customers. In other words, real-world, necessary skills to perform a job in today’s society.
    Part of the solution may rest in expanding a pilot program conducted last school year with the Future Business Leaders of America chapter at Highland High School, called the Leadership Academy. Peck believes some high school graduates could also benefit from the work skills sessions.
    Pecks said the late Nora Feuquay was instrumental getting the Leadership Academy running in Highland. Feuquay was the community and economic development educator for the Extension in Monroe and St. Clair counties before her death in December 2015. A chance conversation with Peck led to Feuquay assisting with the Leadership Academy.