In the last year alone, more than a third of Georgia’s small towns lost population, underscoring the challenges of reviving rural areas.

Opinion: Improve horizons for millions of Georgians outside metro Atlanta

Commissioner of technical colleges says we must educate more students for careers in high-demand fields 

Many rural communities in Georgia are struggling as industry and young people leave.
Projections are that many of the state’s 124 rural counties will lose population over the next 10 years or so. To help rural communities remain competitive, there needs to be a coordinated effort by business, government, civic organizations, and nonprofits, according to Matt Arthur, commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia.
In a guest column today, Arthur says education and skills training that meet the needs of rural Georgia must be a state priority. 
This piece coincides with the release of new Census data that paints a bleak future for rural Georgia.
According to an AJC analysis of the Census data:

In the last year alone, more than a third of Georgia’s small towns lost population, underscoring the challenges of reviving rural areas.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s largest cities got even bigger last year, having no problem pulling in people from small towns and other cities.

More than half of Georgia’s small towns — with populations under 10,000 — have lost people since 2010, compared to fewer than 1 in 6 of all towns 10,000 and up, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of the census data found.

The AJC story raises questions about whether this rural decline can be reversed. “There’s been this hope that another ‘rural rebound’ will materialize, but the past decade has been really kind of dramatic in terms of rural depopulation nationally,” Jeffrey Wright, a demographer with the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, told the AJC.
So, Arthur and the state’s technical colleges have their work cut out for them.
By Matt Arthur
Metro Atlanta continues to be the hub of economic activity in Georgia and the Southeast, with no sign of slowing down any time soon.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Atlanta has had a 43% growth in jobs since 1991, more than 20 percentage points higher than the national average. It has the fourth fastest population growth in the nation—nearly six million people live in the metro region.
Economically speaking, the outlook for the metro area is strong. But what’s on the horizon for the more than four million Georgians who do not live in metro Atlanta? More specifically, what is the outlook for Georgians that live in one of the 124 rural counties in our state?
The reality is rural Georgia faces challenges. Projections made by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce estimate that 74 counties will either lose population or remain at zero percent growth by 2030. If we are to help these communities compete in the 21st century, we must be laser-focused on education and technical training designed uniquely for them. This can be accomplished with a three-pronged approach.
First, more students in rural areas must pursue some form of postsecondary education after high school. According to the National Skills Coalition, middle-skills jobs—those that require education beyond high school, but not a four-year degree—make up 55% of Georgia’s labor market, but only 43% of Georgians are trained to this level.
Dual Enrollment, which allows students to take college courses while still in high school, is a game changer for rural families. More than 80% of the graduating class of 2016 who participated in dual enrollment were enrolled in postsecondary within a year of high school graduation compared to 62% of all public high school graduates. This is real impact.
Second, we must increase the number of students pursuing high-demand career fields in rural Georgia so they are prepared to join today’s workforce. The Georgia Chamber reports that $75 billion of Georgia’s economic output is in Agriculture and Forestry and more than $60 billion is in Advanced Manufacturing, Agricultural Technology, Wholesale Trade, and Logistics.
Growing these industries is critical to the economic well-being of rural Georgia.
However, these industries can’t grow if they don’t have a skilled workforce. Through the HOPE Career Grant, students can go to a Technical College System of Georgia college tuition-free if they pursue one of 17 career fields like Industrial Maintenance, Welding & Joining Technology, Logistics, Electrical Line worker, and Precision Manufacturing, among others. These are fields where Georgia is in desperate need of skilled workers, especially in rural areas.
Finally, more businesses in rural areas need to partner with their local technical college for their workforce needs. Governor Kemp vowed to make Georgia the number one state in the nation for small business and TCSG is committed to developing a workforce for small businesses across our state.
Small businesses are the foundation of rural Georgia. Each of TCSG’s 22 colleges has its own service delivery area and provides specific training for businesses in their community.
Local, industry-led partnerships with technical colleges ensures companies have the skilled employees they’ll need, when they need them.
For example, Beasley Forest Products in Hazlehurst developed a program with Coastal Pines Technical College to provide students with the specific skillsets needed for a career in the timber industry. John Deere established a two-year associate's degree program in Agricultural Technology with South Georgia Technical College so students can learn how to troubleshoot, service, repair, and rebuild John Deere’s agriculture and turf equipment. Premium Peanut, currently the world’s single largest peanut shelling facility, works hand in hand with Wiregrass Georgia Technical College for the training needs of its more than 200 employees.
There certainly aren’t any quick fixes to address the challenges rural Georgians face. It will take a coordinated effort by business, government, civic organizations, and nonprofits. To ensure the progress of rural communities, we must also make education and skills training a priority. 
If we do, the future will be bright for rural Georgia.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.