Scuttlebiz: State, local leaders need to tackle workforce development

For four years in a row, an international economic development magazine has named Georgia the No. 1 state in which to do business.

 

Cue the applause.

But ask yourself this: How long can Georgia be the business-climate king when wide swaths of its population are unqualified, unable or physically incapable of working in some of the state’s fastest-growing industries?

Cue the crickets.

The Peach State’s great, but it has a looming workforce problem. And if elected officials, business leaders and community stakeholders don’t get a handle on it, Georgia will “end up as a donor state, with all the resources being made in the prosperous areas going to take care of people in the unprosperous areas.”

Those are the words of Georgia Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Clark, who spoke in Augusta earlier this month to outline some of the organization’s key priorities, one of which is workforce development. Statistics suggest an alarming number of today’s Georgians won’t be able to do tomorrow’s jobs.

Clark unflinchingly put a spotlight on the growing divide between Georgia’s healthy workforce areas – mainly metro Atlanta and a handful of counties around “hub cities” like Augusta – and the state’s mostly rural regions.

Citing the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Innovation Group’s “Distressed Communities Index,” Clark said 53 percent of Georgia counties are economically distressed – nearly three times the national rate. There’s a lot to worry about: mediocre K-12 rankings, rampant obesity and a high school dropout rate that’s through the roof.

Another key ingredient in the recipe for disaster: Only 35 percent of Georgia third-graders read at proficiency.

“If you’re not reading at a third-grade level by the time you leave third grade, your chances of being unemployed go up. Your chances of going to prison go up,” he said. “We’ve all heard this before. I’m not telling you anything new.”

The weak link in the state’s economic chain wasn’t news to many members of the audience, particularly those holding seats on metro Augusta’s two workforce development boards, including Georgia Power’s Matt Forshee, Workforce Capital’s Charlene Sizemore and Robbie Bennett of the Columbia County Development Authority.

Also attending the meeting was Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis, who helps appoint the workforce board members, and Columbia County Commissioner Doug Duncan, who sits on the State Workforce Development Board, which funds the regional groups.

Apologies if I left anybody out – it was a big crowd. And I spent most of the mingling session chatting up Fruitland Augusta’s Yuri Kato.

Later, however, I reached out to Forshee, who is chairman of the CSRA Workforce Development Board, the entity overseeing the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in Richmond, Burke, Jefferson and Jenkins counties. Nine other regional counties, including Columbia, McDuffie and Lincoln, are covered by the a separate board, the East Central Georgia Consortium.

Each board – which is 51 percent weighed toward the private-sector – coordinates with vocation-specific educational entities, such as Augusta Technical College, and community organizations, such as the veteran-focused Augusta Warrior Project, to help get area residents more easily into the workforce.

For high school dropouts, “help” might mean getting them back in school. For those out of the job market a while, it might mean assistance with interview skills and resume writing. For those without skills but the right attitude and aptitude, it might mean funneling them into the state’s High Demand Career Initiative, which tries to get residents into occupations with critical employee shortages by offering tuition-free education to those who qualify.

“Let’s say welding is one of those high-demand careers,” Forshee explains. “The initiative basically says if you go into a welding program, we will pay your tuition.”

Forshee said the region-specific plan should be ready for rollout next year. One thing for certain is that the focus will be on three industries critical to the regional economy: information technology, health care and advanced manufacturing.

Although incentivizing education will be a large part, but not the only part, of the overall strategy.

“This is just one of those other arrows in the quiver to address workforce skills,” he said. “Being adaptable to change is the driving force in economic development right now.”

Which is simpatico with Clark’s message: The quality of a community’s workforce is ultimately more valuable than its natural resources, utility infrastructure and access to roads, rails and ports.

“It was all about location, location, location. That is not the economic development model for the future,” Clark said. “The new model is talent, talent, talent.”

NOT TO SAY AIRPORTS ARE IRRELEVANT: Our region’s gradual transformation into America’s epicenter of electronic warfare highlights a major community need: direct flights to Washington, D.C.

US Airways’ nonstop service from Augusta Regional Airport to Reagan National Airport was launched in July 2012 – a mere 18 months before the Pentagon announced it was moving Army Cyber Command to Fort Gordon – but canceled just two years later as part of a mandatory route divestiture in the US Airways-American Airlines merger.

“We did not lose that flight due to lack of demand,” airport Director Herbert Judon emphasizes.

The airport is stepping up marketing efforts to get the flight back, especially now that American has restored direct service to many midsized markets – including Savannah – that were cut off in the merger.

“That gives us hope to see it coming back to Augusta as well,” Judon said.

Airport spokeswoman Lauren Smith said the D.C. flight was very popular despite having a 10 a.m. departure time, which is a tad late for business travelers trying to squeeze in a D.C. day trip. Resuming the service with an early-morning takeoff time would generate even higher passenger loads, which is the key to sustainable service.

“We have so much growth with Fort Gordon, but we also have manufacturers that travel to Washington several times a year” she said. “The demand is definitely there.”

To prove it, the airport has developed a customer survey (at surveymonkey.com/r/XWQY5GX) that it is pushing out to the business community through the area chambers of commerce.

You want that flight back folks? Fill out the survey. And stop driving to Atlanta and Columbia, S.C., unless it makes total economic sense. Often, it doesn’t.

AN AIRPORT ASIDE: I’d wager the number of residents longing for the return of nonstop service to Washington is in the tens-of-thousands range. I talked to two just this past week: Unisys Vice President Jennifer Napper, who is moving to Augusta from suburban D.C., and Augusta Planning and Development Director Melanie Wilson, who used to work in D.C. and Baltimore.

Each of them, interestingly, brought up the topic without prompting during separate interviews on topics totally unrelated to air service. Even more amusing (to me, anyway) is those interviews occurred just two days before I contacted AGS about its efforts to find a carrier willing to bring back the beltway beeline.

What coincidence. What serendipity.

By the way, my Wilson interview on the third floor of the municipal building was briefly interrupted when Tuesday’s 3.2 magnitude earthquake momentarily pulsated the Marble Palace.

Where were you during Augusta’s Great Quake of 2017?

ANOTHER COINCIDENCE: When my wife asked where I’d like to go for dinner on Father’s Day, I had only one place in mind: Willie Jewell’s Old School Bar-B-Q.

Not that my gastronomic choices need explaining, but it had been a while since I had some ‘cue. I also didn’t think we’d have a long wait. And, most of all, I’d never been there before – even though the Martinez eatery is just a mile from my house.

So picture my perplexedness (yes, it’s a word) when we pulled off River Watch Parkway to an empty parking lot. A fire less than 24 hours earlier was serious enough to warrant closure for repairs.

I took that as a sign barbecue should wait, so the fallback became Pho Bac, a Vietnamese restaurant in Evans.

The good news is Willie Jewell’s reopens Monday, June 26. The Jacksonville, Fla.-based company recently released a statement saying 10 percent of the entire week’s sales will be donated to the Columbia County Fire Rescue Department.

“While we sustained significant damage to our restaurant, we are eternally grateful to the fire department for saving our store,” said Damian Blevins, the local operating partner. “We look forward to opening back up to serve Augusta’s favorite BBQ, and in the process, make a significant donation back to the brave men and women who saved our business.”

MEANWHILE, ACROSS TOWN…: Woody’s Bar-B-Q, another Jacksonville-based barbecue joint, also happens to be launching a promotion Monday, June 26.

Though the title of the limited-time-only offer has absolutely nothing to do with the cross-town competitor’s fire, the parallelism of it’s title, “Burnt Ends,” is eerie.

Named for barbecue meat’s telltale char and pink smoke ring, Woody’s promotion features two items: the “Burnt Ends Sandwich,” 1/3 pounds of cubed ends of slow-smoked beef brisket on Texas Toast with your choice of side order; and the “Burnt Ends Dinner,” a heaping 1/2 pound of sauce-drizzled brisket served with two sides.

If you’re in the vicinity of North Leg and Wrightsboro roads, you can get your brisket on until Aug. 15, a date that just so happens to fall around my birthday. If that sounds like a hint to the wife, it’s because it totally is.

FULL CIRCLE: This week’s Scuttlebiz ends as it began, on workforce development. That’s because the topic happens to be the No. 1 priority of the brand-spanking-new president of the Associated General Contractors of Georgia, Augusta’s own Scott Clark, CEO of R.W. Allen.

Clark, only the second local to head the 90-year-old commercial construction organization (the other being his former boss, company founder and U.S. Rep. Rick Allen), is focused on getting more young people into the construction industry. Especially women and minorities.

“There is so much strength that comes from having management-level people from diverse gender and ethnic backgrounds,” Clark said, noting that 73 percent of general contractors nationwide say they need more workers.

From his perspective, the shortage of people who can manage skilled tradespeople is due to overall lack of interest in the building trades. That’s why several years ago he started Skills Challenge, a regional high school contest where students compete in everything from masonry and plumbing to carpentry and welding.

Through R.W. Allen’s sponsorship, and that of its partners, the event helps the schools purchase construction supplies and equipment as well as send the kids to the statewide competition in Atlanta.

“We had about 78 kids take part in the competition and about 170 kids observing them,” Clark said of the 2016 event. “My focus is on getting the 170 to not just observe, but participate.”

A peculiarity of the Association of General Contractors’ Georgia chapter is that its bylaws mandate the president must come from outside metro Atlanta every other year to ensure broader statewide representation.

If you’re wondering, as I did, why the organization boasts only two Augusta presidents (from the same firm, no less), it’s because Augusta has shockingly few members for a metro area its size. Though several area subcontractors and suppliers as members, there are only five general contractors. And of those, only R.W. Allen is home grown.

The others – Brasfield & Gorrie (North Augusta Ballpark Village), Christman (The Miller Theater), Gilbane (Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University) and New South (Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center) – are headquartered elsewhere.

For perspective, Macon, Ga., a smaller market that has much less going on, has twice the members Augusta has.

Why should it matter? Well, since we all tend to do business with people we know, like and trust, it stands to reason that local contractors would get more contracts with increased statewide visibility.

Consider the cyber center rapidly rising from the ground at the AU Riverfront Campus. With an Atlanta-based company running the project, where do you think the subs and suppliers will come from?

Clark has an idea.

“Visually, I see two or three from Augusta,” he said. “The rest I see coming from out of town.”

 

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

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