Scuttlebiz: ‘Life skills’ a must in workforce development

‘Workforce development’ is not an attention-grabbing topic.

 

It’s nebulous. It’s boring. And despite being a crucial concept in economic development, it’s just plain unsexy.

Yet here I am devoting this week’s entire column to the topic, so indulge me while I do my best to sex things up.

There are many definitions for workforce development. Here’s mine: The creation of motivated, skilled and workplace-ready individuals who can perform tasks crucial to the economy.

Workforce development is especially important in the metro area because most of the industries expected to power our economy in next several decades — cyber, nuclear, health care and advanced manufacturing — require higher education or on-the-job training.

In the nuclear field alone, the SRS Community Reuse Organization says 10,000 new workers will be needed over the next 10 years just to replace Savannah River Site retirees. If home-grown young people aren’t prepared for these jobs, they will go to someone else.

The same concept applies for other occupations, from brain surgeons to brickmasons.

There is much work to be done, but we should applaud our business leaders and educators for the workforce development strides they’ve made so far. The Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce, for example, recently created a new “director of workforce development” position. The Columbia County Chamber of Commerce’s Blackboards 2 Business program is doing an excellent job of embedding educators in area businesses to show them the skills their students need to know.’

Augusta University’s new Hull College of Business Dean Rick Franza says workforce development is the college’s top priority.

“We want to make sure we’re providing the kind of workforce the business community wants,” Franza told me during a recent interview. “If we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our job.”

Major local employers such as Georgia Power and John Deere Commercial Products are doing their part by stepping up to the plate to create outstanding science, technology, engineering and math-focused initiatives for middle and high school students. Wal-Mart recently opened its first area training academy in its Evans supercenter, where rank-and-file employees get training designed to lead them to long-term (i.e. higher paying) jobs with the retailer.

Across the river in Graniteville, S.C., MTU America’s diesel engine plant is offering on-the-job apprenticeship that gives high schoolers who complete the program an industrial mechanic certification credential that qualifies them to work in any manufacturing plant in the state.

Nonprofits such as Goodwill Industries, the Salvation Army and Easter Seals are helping put work-challenged adults on the path to productivity, while organizations such as theClubhou.se and the proposed Augusta Innovation Zone are promoting tech-focused innovation among next-generation entrepreneurs.

But perhaps no local entity has made as big a splash as Textron Specialized Vehicles’ Reaching Potential through Manufacturing, or “RPM,” program, a school-to-work initiative for at-risk students.

The partnership with Richmond County Schools was launched last year at a hybrid manufacturing plant/classroom on Mike Padgett Highway, where 93 high schoolers previously on the road to Nowheresville are getting a second chance at a diploma while getting real-world manufacturing experience and a paycheck building components for Textron products. With a dose of life-skills training, RPM is designed to put students on a pathway to the workforce, the military or a college education.

In February, Textron hired the first RPM graduate, Timothy Stuckey, as a full-time employee on its industrial-commercial line. The teen reportedly outscored other adult applicants on Textron’s work-ready assessment test.

The Textron division, whose products include E-Z-GO golf cars and Jacobsen turf-care products, has had more than two dozen regional school systems and employers tour the RPM plant, which itself is based on a program created by Carrollton, Ga.-based Southwire Co. a decade ago.

I couldn’t be happier to see other local companies jump on the bandwagon, as there are lots of young people in need of “life skills” training, something I consider the foundation of any workforce development program. Re-read my definition and note the “motivated” part.

Too many young adults are simply work-averse. I recently interviewed a paving contractor who groused about how hard it was to find workers to operate heavy equipment.

“You just can’t find anybody who wants to work outside anymore,” he lamented. “They sit in heated and air-conditioned cabs, but they still don’t want to do it.”

I’ve heard other employers make similar statements. I’ve also heard many complaints about something that I can only describe as an overall lack of personal responsibility among workers — including high-wage earners.

For example, a local real estate professional casually related the story of a welder who is earning in excess of $200,000 a year but can’t qualify for a mortgage because of bad credit.

“This guy is making bank,” the broker said. “He just doesn’t pay his bills.”

Now, if you’ve managed to read this far, good for you. You’re about halfway through. Stay with me because I’d like to drive home the point of teaching young people “the basics” of work and life by relating a personal anecdote about my time working at the John Deere plant. Not as a communications professional — my chosen career — but as a contract-employee assembler on the manufacturing line.

Yep, I helped build tractors.

In fact, if you are the proud owner of a cabless 5000 series model made in Grovetown during the fourth quarter of 2013, there’s a 75 percent chance the rollover protection structure was assembled by yours truly.

This is something very few people (until now, of course) are aware of, as it almost never comes up in conversation with my white-collar colleagues.

But perhaps it should. A boots-on-the-ground, fully immersed perspective might be helpful to those in the work-preparedness business, or at least to the parents of young people about to enter the workforce.

They might find it interesting, or horrifying, to know every man in my “crew” (and I do mean every single one) had at least one child with a woman other than his wife or current girlfriend.

They might be curious to know that some of the men who complained the most about living paycheck to paycheck — the child support, perhaps? — would swap their steel-toed boots for $150 sneakers once the whistle blew. And don’t get me started on their overly fancy cars and trucks.

Now, I don’t want to come across as elitist — do elitists take temp jobs at tractor factories? — or that I consider my former co-workers “bad” people. On the contrary, that they were working made them basically good people in my book. In fact, one of the friendliest and hardest-working team members was a convicted felon who served six years in prison for narcotics trafficking. Everyone makes poor choices at one point or another. I certainly have, and you have too.

But my point is that too many of these folks were setting themselves up for long-term mediocrity because of an inability to set basic basic goals and distinguish wants from needs — which, by the way, was something I used to teach at high schools a decade ago as a volunteer with Junior Achievement.

For me, the factory gig was merely something to do in-between jobs in my chosen “career.” You may feel otherwise, but I found working on a production line more dignified than sitting on my duff and telling people I was doing “consulting work” or some other lie white-collar people use to conceal temporary joblessness.

But for many of my co-workers, they couldn’t grasp the concept that if they continued to show up for work on time, did a good job and kept a positive attitude, that they might someday be offered positions as full-fledged John Deere employees, with better pay and benefits and the opportunity for higher-level jobs.

Remember, former E-Z-GO President L.T. Walden got his start with the company on the manufacturing floor.

So perhaps the greatest thing we can do from a workforce-development standpoint is drive home the idea that hard work, in all its forms, really does pay off for those with a good work ethic and a modicum of ambition. And that the only thing you’re entitled to is the chance to prove the value of your paycheck.

The good news is teaching those values doesn’t cost a dime. It doesn’t require a fancy program with catchy initials. It just requires a little effort from the most important cogs in the workforce-development machine: parents.

 

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com

 

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