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Aligning all levels of workforce training is complicated

The problems ailing rural Georgia are, like much in the realm of public policy, complicated. How to improve schools and boost health-care access in sparsely populated areas? How to connect more small-town homes and businesses to high-speed internet?

But those tasks seem relatively straightforward compared to the top economic development challenge for Georgia, rural and otherwise: producing a quality, trained, reliable workforce.

“The reality is workforce can be a vast labyrinth (for policymakers), because there are a lot of different factors that affect the quality,” says Amy Lancaster, director of workforce development for the Metro Atlanta Chamber. “The education system is obviously a big piece of that, whether k-12 or post-secondary. But the opioids (epidemic), criminal justice reform — all those things have a big impact, so it’s hard to limit or confine it to one issue or agency.”

Members of the House Rural Development Council spent the better part of their most recent meetings, one day in Ellijay and one in Dalton, trying to get their arms around the issue. More grappling is needed, but here are a few key takeaways so far.

First, there’s a disconnect between what students hear about job preparation and what employers really have to say.

“We have teachers in our own backyard telling students, you can do better than working in the mill,” Brian Cooksey, head of training and talent development for Shaw Industries, told lawmakers. “This is not the mill of old. It’s an advanced-manufacturing facility that offers opportunities all over the world if you can take advantage” of the experience gained from working in it.

Even if industry could root out anti-blue collar bias in high school counseling offices, there’s a mismatch between what students want to study and which courses are in highest demand.

“The course offerings may not be aligned with local demand, at least not from the employer side,” Lancaster says. “It may be aligned with what students are interested in, whether that leads to employment or not.” Thus Georgia’s persistent shortages of welders and truck drivers, even though enrollment at technical colleges is strong.

Another problem, she says, is technical colleges might offer the right general type of training or certification employers want, but not the specific curricula prospective employees really need.

“It’s not all the school’s fault. And it’s not all employers’ fault,” she summarizes. “There are no incentives in the system at the two-year degree level or the four-year degree level to align with employer demand. It’s all driven by student demand. And they don’t know … what employers need or what the landscape” looks like.

The state has tried to address that by offering free tuition in 12 high-demand fields offered at its technical colleges. It’s a start, but here we circle back to the part about whether students know there’s a job waiting for them in, say, diesel equipment technology or precision manufacturing.

These challenges exist across the state, but they’re more acute in rural areas because the opportunities — both for education and for employment — are fewer. Finding solutions to them is another way that what’s good for one part of Georgia is good for all.

Kyle Wingfield writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach him and read more at www.bit.ly/KyleWingfield.