Opinion: Businesses working to improve Ga.’s workforce

There are still fewer people in the workforce than there were in mid-2008.

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There are still fewer people in the workforce than there were in mid-2008.

Over the last 40 years, Georgia has experienced substantial economic growth. We went from being the 17th-largest state economy to being the 9th-largest.

Critical to that growth has been the focus to improve Georgia’s world-class talent pipeline. Economic developers learned in the last 20 years that companies take for granted traditional infrastructure like water and sewer and today focus on quality of life that is attractive to their employees.

In our current environment, that focus on talent is as important for small businesses and startups as it is for large corporations and manufacturing operations. The labor crisis gripping America was not unforeseen. It simply arrived, like most future trends did in this last year, ahead of schedule with the onset of COVID.

The Georgia Chamber has been focused on this issue since our research in 2015 showed an aging workforce. Research also showed the skills needed by tomorrow’s workers were changing more rapidly than educators could manage. A new job category in 2012 required a 4-year degree. By 2015 the industry decided it only needed a 2-year degree, and in 2019 that same job simply required an 8-week certification.

The COVID recession, and the digital disruption it brought to our economy, expedited changes to the job market that should have taken a decade and allowed us more time to plan and adapt accordingly.

As measured by GDP, growth is driven by two factors: the working population and the productivity of those workers. According to McKinsey, Georgia has had a decline in the number of workers moving to the state, even before COVID. Since the pandemic, there has been a drastic decline in the number of Georgians participating in the workforce, indicated by its workforce participation rate of 63%, and most active workers are working fewer hours than before, reducing overall productivity.

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Chris Clark

Credit: contributed

Chris Clark

Credit: contributed

Combined ShapeCaption
Chris Clark

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Most economic measures indicated that the state was experiencing full employment, but Georgia employers were struggling to fill openings. Those trends have been compounded and, currently, employers are being forced to turn down contracts, raise prices or close their doors. And many are changing their entire business model.

However, among those businesses open, rebounding and thriving is a common thread. They are listening to their employees and the labor market. Salary and benefits, alone, are no longer the currency for competitive employment. Now, employers must consider flexible hours, higher wages, signing bonuses, childcare options, or vouchers, and even transportation support.

Companies are focused on keeping employees and their families safe and healthy, supporting personal and professional demands to competitively offer an overall work-life balance.

Georgia’s elected leaders have equally been committed to helping solve these issues with businesses. State leaders are engaged and focused on real world, free-enterprise solutions. And while efforts are creating short-term solutions, there remains a labor cliff that is rapidly approaching. Most economists agree that by 2030, the U.S. will need 16 million additional workers as Baby Boomers exit the office and technology becomes more prominent.

So, how do we tackle that looming crisis?

First, we focus on getting Georgians who want to work, back to work. Families need childcare and transportation support. Veterans require assistance as they transition to the private labor market. And second-chance workers should have solid re-entry programs to successfully transition back into the workforce.

Second, as the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education has illustrated through data and research, we must rethink K-12 education and the skills that the 2030 talent demand will create. Following that will be dramatic changes in technical and university education. We must invest in innovation in education, supporting the success of distressed communities and addressing systemic problems. Then we need to graduate more individuals from our technical colleges and universities.

By 2025, 60% of jobs will require postsecondary education. Currently, only 36.8% of Georgians have an associate degree or above. The Smart Decisions Coalition is currently offering three $5,000 mini-grants through the Georgia Chamber Foundation for school districts and communities to ensure students understand the career options in STEM-related fields. Continued focus on efforts such as these, will offer resources to develop and train talent for tomorrow’s jobs.

Third, America needs a reset on legal immigration. In 2018, Georgia created 113,000 jobs which would require in-state talent as well as new arrivals to fill them. Unfortunately, this demand was met with a 5 percent decrease in workforce participation over the past decade, costing Georgia about $45 billion, or 8 percent, in potential annual economic output. Our state must remove licensing barriers to foreign-born people who have legally immigrated to Georgia, so they can utilize their existing skills to fully contribute to our economy rather than wading through the existing red-tape requirements.

Through it all, we need open and honest, bipartisan policy discussions. We need employers focused on being a great place to work, while their workers take logical and diligent steps toward safe return, getting vaccinated and choosing to upskill and educate themselves on the job requirements of tomorrow.

The future of Georgia’s economic prosperity rests on addressing both the short- and long-term issues. The Georgia Chamber will continue to lead and facilitate this larger discussion through events, programs and initiatives designed to educate and inform on these rapidly emerging trends. To learn more, visit www.gachamber.com/gti, or check out www.gachamber.com/smartdecisions.

Chris Clark is president and CEO, Georgia Chamber of Commerce.