Having a colorful, hard-of-hearing 87-year-old in the family can be interesting. When my father learned that I was going to Ireland on a chamber visit and asked me, “When are you going to Iran?” I quickly corrected him that Ireland was my destination. Neither I nor the chamber is ready for Iran just yet.
I’m not sure we were ready for Ireland, either. We were there to learn about what has been called the Celtic Tiger – Ireland’s economic transformation over the last decade and a half, during which time it has catapulted from the bottom of the economic food chain of the European Union to the top.
Those of us on the trip were eager to learn the key to their success. As you know, we in Kentucky have our share of Irish roots – I saw old men in Dublin who were the spitting image of my father – and our population is about the same size, at four million. So what was their turning point? Did luck matter? Strategy?
The short answer is education. Ireland, with its large population of young people, invested heavily in them, including a free college education. American companies caught on and came quickly overseas to take advantage of a big and well-educated workforce.
Of course resources are not the only obstacles to education we face in Kentucky. We must also encourage our families to value education more highly. How did Ireland do it? Reach the mothers, one speaker told us. All mothers want what’s best for their children, so we must help them see how what’s done today can make a difference tomorrow. Hardly economic jargon – but it rang perfectly true.
Of course the tie between the economy and education is not new, and in Kentucky we’re trying to strengthen it. The STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) movement is aimed at developing more innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs so that we can establish and attract companies which will sell their products and services worldwide – all from right here.
But we also heard that education alone is not enough. David McWilliams, the controversial Irish writer, pointed out that Ireland is also experiencing the down side of success in the form of skyrocketing housing prices that are affecting the quality of life of all those educated young people.
Thus we should not overlook the importance of preserving our culture and uniqueness as we all clamor for the same goals, he said. More jobs? Of course they’re important. But how can we market and brand our way of life as well? It’s certainly a selling point to those who increasingly yearn for more connection to their communities than a flickering computer screen in the wee hours.
With our strong heritage and cultural gifts in Kentucky, we, like Ireland, have opportunities – and if we seize them, I’m convinced we may have a tiger of our own. Visitors may one day explore not only the science of our success but the art of how we got there.