Fayette facing worker shortage as county businesses plan expansions

Aventure Aviation president Zaheer Faruqi talks about the aviation industry in the lobby of his Peachtree City business on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Aventure Aviation president Zaheer Faruqi talks about the aviation industry in the lobby of his Peachtree City business on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Fayette County promotes itself as a great place to live with tree-line boulevards, good schools and low crime.

But businesses in the southside community are struggling to find workers as they compete with higher paying jobs in Atlanta and at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport while losing out on recent high school graduates, who have eschewed the area for a more youth-oriented Midtown lifestyle, according to a Clayton State University study and interviews with business owners.

"When local high school grads leave for universities and colleges away from Fayette County, many of them prefer the fast-paced life of the city and end up working in town or in a different state where they believe there are many more things to do for a younger crowd," said Zaheer Faruqi, president of Aventure Aviation, who is seeking young workers within a 20-mile radius of his Peachtree City aircraft supply company.

But Faruqi says the grads are missing out on a golden opportunity right in their backyards. Because of the county’s proximity to Hartsfield, several aeronautics companies call the community home and will take part in grooming the close to 2.5 million new jobs for pilots, maintenance technicians and cabin crew expected in the industry over the next 20 years.

The worker shortage is not unique to Fayette, but it stands out because the county — one of the most affluent in metro Atlanta — has been trying to attract more millennials to help the community continue to grow as its population ages.

But many Fayette businesses are not seeing enough applicants for positions or find that those who do apply are woefully unqualified.

“There are a lot of candidates who misrepresent what they can do,” Heather Mobley, human resources director for insurance company Group Access, said. “If I tell them that I need them to know Excel, you would think that they would at least try to learn it before they see me, but they don’t.”

About 47 percent of Fayette residents have degrees and prefer to work outside the county, depriving the community of a huge portion of its skilled labor, said Clayton State assistant professor of economics Iryna Hayduk, who conducted the workforce needs assessment for the Fayette Chamber of Commerce.

Of the 100 or so businesses that answered the study’s survey questions, more than half said they plan to expand in the next 12 months. But many are worried the jobs will go unfilled, especially for companies offering lower-paying jobs such as clerical workers, wait staff, retail sales and manufacturing.

Those jobs have higher rates of turnover, especially among workers who travel to Fayette from nearby communities, Hayduk said.

“There is a huge gap between the quality of labor that the county can supply and what is being sought, which is why we have a very high share of in-commuters,” she said.

Compounding Fayette's problem has been its traditional resistance to building housing for low-skilled labor, one of the groups the county is most in need of, as well as traffic that increasingly causes bottlenecks on the two- and four-lane roads leading workers out of the county to the higher-paying jobs, the study said.

“When you look at metro Atlanta, Fayette County is the only county without an interstate to move traffic,” said Fayette Commission Chairman Randy Ognio, who added that the community also is a cut-through route for Coweta, Spalding and Henry workers traveling north. “We are working on a comprehensive transportation plan to fix this.”

Fayette Chamber president Colin Martin said the study confirmed what had long been suspected.

“I kept hearing this information anecdotally as I talked to my members and other folks,” he said. “This allowed us to quantify it and say, ‘OK, this is a problem in Fayette County and we’ve got to get more workforce here.’”

As a result, the chamber wants to turn into residents the 15,000 people who travel every day to Fayette to work, the 66,000 people who work at Hartsfield (about 6,000 airport employees already live in the county), and Fayette high school grads who have been gone for the past 10-15 years.

“My friends in the northern arc, in Cherokee, Hall, North Fulton, Forsyth and Gwinnett, are doing a fantastic job of marketing their communities to those millennials and others who want to move out of Midtown, downtown or Buckhead,” he said. “We’ve to get our message to them that Fayette County is a great place for them to come as well.”

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