Southwire Company leaders noticed a looming problem in the early 2000s.
With the economy expanding, the wire and cable maker in Carrollton was concerned that schools weren’t churning out enough adequately educated students to fill its employment pipeline.
The company faced a shortage of people with diplomas and found that those who had graduated were often not ready to work. It started a training and high-school education program and incorporated it with hands-on work so students could see the practical uses of what they were learning. It succeeded for both, giving Southwire the labor force it needed while helping students graduate.
The company created its own solution to a problem plaguing many Georgia companies: too many job applicants lack adequate education and skills. In some cases, that has caused companies to move jobs to other states, like Home Depot did in the past few years when it built tech centers in California and Texas.
That is lost money that could be lining Georgians’ pockets and filling tax coffers to build schools and roads. Instead it goes elsewhere because of the gap between the skills that jobs require and the skills Georgians bring.
The gap is wide, and projections show Georgia jobs will require more training. In five years, 60 percent of jobs in the state will require post-secondary education, either a degree or certificate. But only 38 percent of Georgia high school sophomores get that far, according to a recent Atlanta Regional Commission study.
That gap is the problem, the chasm between success or failure in the future. Figure out how to bridge it, and Georgia advances; make no progress, and the state risks being surpassed by competitors.
State falls behind
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this year tallied jobs, wages and population growth to see how the region is faring five years after the Great Recession. We weighed ourselves against Sunbelt competitors such as Charlotte and Dallas. Atlanta trailed in most categories, sometimes by a wide margin.
For instance, while per capita income nationally has climbed during the recovery, Georgia’s, at about $39,000 a year, is lower than it was in 2000, according to the ARC.
How did Georgia get in a position where it is playing catch-up? Interviews with about two dozen local and national education experts, civic and business leaders and students offer explanations why Georgia is treading water. The answers include miscommunication between educators and business leaders about the skills gap, sporadic involvement in skills development by business owners (particularly in rural Georgia), frequent turnover of education leaders, and inadequate state funding for education.
Georgia is one of 30 states that provided less funding per student for the 2014-2015 school year than they did before the recession, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Georgia spent 11 percent less per student in fiscal 2015 than in fiscal 2008, when the recession began.
Georgia’s colleges are producing some students with high-level skills and degrees in areas like engineering, but many of them leave for employment in other places. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has repeatedly lamented the brain drain of talent, noting that only about half of Georgia Tech graduates remain in Georgia.
Georgia has long imported talent to fill some of its jobs, but there still exists a shortage of workers to fill middle-skilled jobs — those that require a high school diploma and some post-secondary credential or education, such as welders, but not necessarily a four-year degree.
Look at the projected growth jobs in Georgia, and licensed truck drivers are number one, followed by software developers. Registered nurses, another highly educated job, is number three, followed by retail sales positions, which require less training but solid people skills. Georgia’s economy remains a mix of new and old economy jobs, but the skill sets for both in the 21st century are higher than they were for previous generations.
Meeting the challenge
Southwire’s cooperative education program, 12 For Life, attracted national attention and praise from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for finding workable solutions.
Southwire started its first group of 71 students in 2007 and now enrolls and hires about 300 students a year from area high schools.
Zach Harness, 17, who started Villa Rica High School with failing grades and behind on credits two years ago, now mans high-powered machinery on a morning shift at Southwire before taking classes at the factory later in the day. Without the program he says he would have graduated, eventually.
“But it would have been hard,” he said.
Georgia leaders are replicating the model with other companies on smaller scales around the state, and Southwire has begun a second 12 For Life operation in Florence, Ala. But many companies struggle with filling open jobs, as Georgia executives told government leaders in a series of meetings in 2014.
The skills gap exists in metro Atlanta, but the numbers are even worse in rural areas, exacerbating the “two Georgias” divide — prosperous metro areas and mostly impoverished rural counties whose populations, tax base and school systems are shrinking, sticking them in a downward spiral.
In eight Georgia counties, mostly rural, at least 30 percent of the adult population lack a high school diploma or GED.
To find enough workers, LMC Manufacturing in southwest Georgia, a leading designer and manufacturer of food processing equipment, has hired from as far as Pennsylvania.
Marcus Carter, who runs the company, said the problems begin in high school.
“At the high school level, our counselors aren’t promoting technology-based education,” he said.
Then there’s the rural brain-drain. In a group of about 25 hires from the area, only about two employees will remain at the company long-term, Carter said. Young people from the area who get educated often move on.
“It’s hard keeping people here,” he said. In his area of the state, many students graduate from high school, leave for college and often don’t come back. Some of those who do return come back to help with the family farms.
Georgia education and political leaders have been trying to find solutions.
In metro Atlanta, some schools are beginning to try new programming that will prepare students for both college and non-degreed jobs.
Some have carved up high schools into academies where students pick a career and shape their class schedule around that interest. Graduation rates have risen in two-thirds of Atlanta city schools over the past three years. Atlanta, though, has ditched some if its academies and theme-based schools. Gwinnett County, Georgia’s largest school district, started academies last year in five high schools that were in the lower half of graduation rates. Gwinnett expanded the academies to two more high schools, including its newest school, this year.
Gov. Nathan Deal included Georgia in a national campaign to increase the number of people in the state with college credentials. The governor and the state’s college systems pledged an additional 250,000 graduates by 2025 through the Complete College Georgia initiative.
There’s also a new strategic industries program in Georgia, providing a free technical college education to students enrolling in programs to secure credentials and degrees for targeted high-demand careers, such as truck driving, welding and computer technology. And, the state’s university and technical college systems have partnered with the schools systems and area businesses to make it easier for students to enroll in college classes while in high school, inspire Georgians with some college credits to finish their programs and offer tax credits to companies for employees who complete their GEDs.
Some educators note the skills students learn in vocational classes can lead to good jobs, though vocational classes lost much of their popularity in recent decades as they’ve developed a stigma as places to warehouse low-performing students.
A few Georgia schools, like Gwinnett’s Maxwell High, specialize in vocational trades like automotive repair, culinary arts and welding. But Georgia does not have data on how many vocational public schools there are in the state.
Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, believes American schools need to embrace comprehensive vocational training programs like Southwire’s to help students gain the necessary skills to compete when they graduate.
“Almost none of this happens in the United States,” he said.
By comparison, New Jersey, which ranks among the top 10 states nationally in many education statistics, has dozens of vocational schools. It’s not a cheap model to implement. New Jersey spends more money per pupil — $18,977 — than any state except New York, according to a Georgia State University study. Georgia spends half as much, $9,402, which puts it 34th nationally.
Though many companies used to do what Southwire has done — invest in employee training — fewer do so today.
Former DeKalb County school system superintendent Michael Thurmond, also a former state Labor Department commissioner, said many employers cut back job training programs after the Great Recession, which has put the onus on schools to do more to prepare students for the work world.
“The expectation to train the workers has shifted to the educational system,” Thurmond said.
Removing the silos
On a recent Wednesday morning, Deal, who has been listening to companies and proposing changes to bridge the skills gap, spoke about Georgia’s challenges at a High Demand Career Initiative meeting in Atlanta.
That afternoon, extra chairs were needed at an Atlanta Regional Commission subcommittee meeting where about 75 educators, elected officials and civic leaders – nearly all from metro Atlanta – listened to a panel of business leaders discuss the challenges of finding skilled workers.
Once upon a time, this sort of discussion with businesses didn’t happen, said Ann W. Cramer, the head of the ARC subcommittee and a senior consultant at an Atlanta fundraising firm. Entrepreneurs railed about the problem to other entrepreneurs. Educators talked among themselves. Everyone was in their own silo, Cramer said. That changed a few years ago with a series of reports that concluded education and workforce development were key to Georgia’s economic development.
Observers say businesses have to be more involved, particularly in rural areas, where unemployment rates are higher and test scores are lower.
“The relationship shouldn’t be unilateral,” said Jordan Posamentier, deputy policy director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, based at the University of Washington. “It’s incumbent on business leaders to say ‘Hey, this is what I’m looking for and here’s how I can help.’ I think that’s not happening, especially in rural areas.”
The panelists were asked what they could do to help.
“What I would like is to be part of curriculum development,” said David Bergmann, president of a Fayette County manufacturing company.
During the meeting, the panelists detailed their needs: young people who communicate well, who know their way around Microsoft Excel, who can work well in a group and can lift their eyes from their smartphone when someone is speaking to them. Weaknesses in those soft skills are a constant complaint among business leaders and others who work at major Georgia companies.
Georgia educators have heard the concerns.
The state education department’s goal is to better develop the state’s work-based programs and other initiatives, said program manager Dwayne Hobbs. About 10 percent of Georgia’s high school students participate in some type of cooperative education, internship, apprenticeship or clinical experience. They want to increase that rate.
“Our focus is to get students into career pathways where demand is great, so they will be employable,” he said. “For every student we succeed, that is one slot in the (skills) gap.”
“Are we there yet? No,” said Cramer, the ARC subcommittee’s chairwoman. “Are we on it? Yes.”
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