Opinion: Georgia gives students more options for hands-on work experience

In a guest column, Greg Dozier, commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia, and Debra Lam, founding executive director of the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation, talk about workforce development opportunities for early-career professionals.

By Greg Dozier and Debra Lam

In today’s competitive job market, employers are demanding more than just a degree from applicants — they want experience. This has put many fresh college graduates and early-career professionals around the country in a Catch-22 situation: They need experience to get a job but can’t get a job without experience.

As a result, experiential types of learning such as internships, fellowships and apprenticeships have become a popular way to gain much-needed hands-on experience, and for good reasons. The 2023 Job Outlook survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers underscores that when considering two equally qualified candidates for a position, employers are more likely to prefer the candidate who has experiential learning over the one who does not.

Greg Dozier

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

More often than not, however, these opportunities are unpaid. For many young graduates and professionals, working for free is just not an option. Given this longtime trend in the workforce development world, lower-income individuals have largely been excluded from existing programs. This not only widens socioeconomic disparities but also stifles our own capacity, as a society, to innovate on a broader scale.

Standing tall as a beacon of hope, Georgia is paving the way nationwide for how we look at early-career development to foster the next generation of innovators. In particular, we at the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation have developed a pipeline of programs designed to close the gap between academic knowledge and practical work experience.

Debra Lam

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

One such initiative is our first-of-its-kind fellowship program, in which fellows receive full-time compensation as they work with two employers within the same field, spending six months in the private sector and another six in the public sector. Participating employers include Microsoft, Cox Enterprises, the Atlanta Beltline, NexTraq (a Michelin subsidiary), and others that understand the importance of investing in their future workforce. (Editor’s note: Cox Enterprises is the owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

In addition, we created the summer internship for students to apply their academic training to real-world problems within a community setting. Participating interns, working in a summer cohort and often in community pairs, are placed at project sites throughout Georgia and the South where they are engaged in public innovation work and receive a full-time, competitive summer stipend.

In both instances, participants gain valuable experience and transferable skills. But that’s just the beginning. They also reap a host of benefits ranging from mentorship and innovative collaboration to networking opportunities and résumé-building workshops. More importantly, they are working on projects that have a real impact on our state around AI manufacturing, energy conservation, digital equity and inclusion and more.

We launched these programs to honor the economic realities faced by early-career professionals and help them develop versatile skills that hold currency in both the public and private sectors. And the partnership does not stand alone in this endeavor. In fact, the Technical College System of Georgia serves as the state’s largest network of registered apprenticeship sponsors, supporting employers in providing paid apprenticeship programs and therefore fostering a pipeline of skilled talent. Such initiatives promise to boost innovation from the ground up and impact communities at the local level.

These programs also represent an innovative new way to look at public-private partnerships, focusing on long-term value instead of short-term transactions. The partnership itself stands as a testament to the power of such collaboration — we are a public-private organization created to lead coordinated, statewide efforts aimed at positioning Georgia at the forefront of innovation and shared economic prosperity.

The spirit of this joint effort is not new to Georgia, where leaders from the state’s private sector, universities and nonprofits have a longtime history of coming together to collaborate with local government on issues of critical importance. Building upon this example, the partnership is extending our reach to all corners of Georgia, ensuring that no potential innovator is left behind due to their location.

Georgia has long been a shining example of advancement in the South. Now, that light shines even brighter as we shape a future where every person can innovate, create and lead. We invite stakeholders from both the public and private sectors as well as forward-thinking individuals to join our efforts. Through the strength of our collective efforts, we hope to not only address but eliminate the barriers that prevent our young talent from reaching their full potential.

Together, we can ensure Georgia remains at the forefront of innovation and economic prosperity, now and for generations to come.