Report: Georgia’s employers can’t find qualified workers in key fields

An aging workforce is preparing to retire, and there are not enough skilled workers in Georgia to replenish it. A shortage of computer programmers and engineers is forcing firms to search outside the state for staffers. And there’s an alarming lack of basic “soft skills” demanded by employers.

The state’s High Demand Career Initiative released findings Wednesday that highlighted trouble spots for Georgia’s job sector — and potential opportunities to bolster the state’s workforce.

They point to a problem that has bedeviled Gov. Nathan Deal and other state leaders: Even as the state struggles with a high unemployment rate, there’s a growing demand for highly skilled workers that’s not being met.

The 42-page report comes at an opportune time, just as lawmakers prepare to return to Atlanta for a legislative session that begins Jan. 12. It also offers Deal, whose office launched the initiative this year, cover for plans already in place to address a jobless rate that has topped the nation the past three months.

The governor’s critics, though, say the report shows that Georgia has for too long ignored economic warning signs. Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson said years of austerity cuts to education and changes to the HOPE scholarship program were exacting a damaging toll on the state’s workforce.

A growing demand

The initiative was the result of testimony from more than 80 industry insiders at 13 meetings that included blunt criticisms that, at times, unnerved state leaders. The first meeting in April, for one, featured a Home Depot executive who complained that the company had to import its programming wizards because it couldn’t find enough software developers in metro Atlanta.

At least 19 companies said they expect a large chunk of their employees to retire soon, and many don’t know how they will be replaced. Several others complained of a shortage of local skilled workers, particularly in the high-demand film and manufacturing industries.

That set off a scramble to fill their ranks. A Toyo Tires executive lamented that the firm had to go out of state to find maintenance workers. Ditto for LMC Manufacturing, which said it had to canvass the country because there are not enough skilled laborers here.

That demand will only grow. The governor said Wednesday that German-based auto parts manufacturer Häring will build its first manufacturing plant in Hartwell. The firm will need to fill 800 new jobs over the next 11 years.

The initiative has already stirred some change. Deal has proposed that schools allow computer programming courses to satisfy core requirements for high school students, one fix outlined by the report, and he vowed to expand a program that pays full technical school tuition through the HOPE scholarship for students in more high-demand fields.

The governor said Wednesday that an early draft of his budget proposal includes funding for the expanded grant program, whose $5 million price tag last year will surely rise. Deal said that would “greatly accelerate” the number of skilled workers graduating from Georgia schools.

“We will see more collaboration,” Deal said in an interview. “We need to continue to give focus to areas where we have jobs available but we don’t have enough employees qualified for those jobs.”

Other efforts include a Cyber Security Initiative designed to capitalize on the U.S. Army Cyber Command’s move to Fort Gordon in Augusta, plus a new survey to better cater to high-demand sectors. In the long term, the state plans to create a Georgia Film Academy, run by the higher education system, to train up-and-coming staffers.

And Home Depot, which set off alarm bells with its concerns at the April meeting, triggered a response by state administrators. Gwinnett Technical College was soon assigned to work with the home improvement giant to train more programmers.

‘Craftsmen that can craft an email’

Leaders of the state’s University System and technical college network have also pledged to address the skills gap, mindful that only about 42 percent of Georgia’s young people have a degree or certification beyond a high school diploma. They have set a 2020 goal to increase the number of college graduates in the state by 250,000.

University System Chancellor Hank Huckaby hired new deputies to retool economic development efforts. Higher education officials launched a summer campaign to encourage the 1.1 million residents with some college credits to finish their degrees. And the University System partnered with tech schools on a training center in Warner Robins to help veterans transition back into the workforce.

“We see this as an opportunity for us to train them so that they can take the place of some of the retirees” in the pipeline, Huckaby said. “We are making a concerted effort to see how we can give them academic credit for the work they have done in the military.”

Some business leaders are calling for more fundamental changes. Several firms said k-12 schools needed to introduce students at a younger age to careers that employ science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And they urged school administrators not to give short shrift to basic soft skills such as problem-solving and communication.

“We need people who are collaborative, who have the ability to communicate both verbally and through written form,” a Rayonier executive told the panel. “I need craftsmen that can craft an email.”

Henson, the state Senate’s top Democrat, pointed to billions of dollars in austerity cuts to k-12 education over the past decade and a short-lived change to the lottery-funded HOPE Grant that led thousands of students to lose scholarship funding or forgo enrolling because they couldn’t afford to pay tuition.

“It’s something we’ve been saying all along: We’ve done billions of dollars of damage to education the last few years, and it’s a hole we’re still trying to dig out from,” Henson said. “When you lose thousands of people from the tech school system, you know you’re not moving in the right direction.”

Deal, though, said in an interview that he saw the report as validation that his economic program was working.

“It’s indicative that we are making progress in our state,” Deal said in an interview. “And we’re going to make sure we keep that progress moving.”

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