Originally created 09/15/96

Business, education work together



More and more, businesses are demanding better-educated workers. And more and more, educators are finding it harder to keep up.

Innovation and sophistication - largely driven by competitive technology - continually up the ante for both educators and businesses.

The pace of technology is advancing so rapidly that traditional classroom academics may have a hard time keeping up, said Terry Elam, director of Augusta State University's QuickStart program, which helps train workers in both basic and specialized skills.

"Businesses tend to use the latest equipment, the most recent technology, while education may lag," he said.

What must be done is to turn the business itself into the laboratory, to train employees in the real world. That's the kind of partnership that's needed, Mr. Elam said. "Employees should be on the asset side of the ledger, and not on the cost side."

The only way businesses, communities, or the workers themselves can do that, he added, is with training.

The increasing cost of both quality basic education and worker training ups the ante for communities, too. They must rely on the quality of their work force, and therefore on the quality of their schools, in economic development efforts.

"One of the first things a (job) prospect looks at are schools," said Jack Widener, dean of Augusta State's school of business administration and a former senior vice president for Georgia Power Co.

"If they see a quality school system, that's a real big plus. They don't want to come to a town and not be able to put their children in a good school system."

FOR EXAMPLE: When Mattel launched a Fisher Price toymaking operation in the Augusta area this year, it took advantage of QuickStart.

"The QuickStart program is one reason we came here. ... They promised and they delivered," said Pat Jacovino, manager of human resources and production manager at the plant. "They've done such professional work, we're just blown out of the water. ... I've been in a number of states and you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop - like another bill - but they've really been there for us."

And as technology races ahead, "being there" for business gets more expensive. In some respects, teachers themselves are only just ahead of where their students are.

"Faculty need to have these tools available to them, so they'll understand the use of them," Mr. Widener said.

Business, in the many ways it supports education, helps make that possible, along with other revenue sources such as the Georgia Lottery. The lottery gave Augusta State $100,000 in matching funds last year.

But, "Businesses also support schools in lots of other ways," the business school dean said. "They do it through gifts, and they do it for lots of different reasons. Some do it from a sense of corporate responsibility. Some view it as really self enlightenment, self interest: if schools turn out better workers, not only is that a source of better workers, it also creates a better market."

BILL BLOODWORTH, president of Augusta State, said "There is a very long tradition of business assistance to education that goes back hundreds of years. I assume it's a free choice for businesses to offer that support."

Still, businesses lament the state of education, and some resent the fact they have to pitch in to finish a job that's not primarily theirs.

"Most of them don't want it to feel like an obligation," Mr. Widener said.

"Most want to feel like they want to do it. Some argue they're obligated, but I'm not one of those. Some even argue they shouldn't have to, but most businessmen I know are not in either one of those camps," he said.

Hugh Hamilton is operations manager at Columbia County's Intertape Augusta, formerly Augusta Bag Co. Mr. Hamilton recently sold Augusta Bag to Canada-based Intertape Polymers.

"I think it's unfortunate that businesses have to be involved in the education business," he said.

He doesn't mean to deride the efforts of educators, he added, but thinks the support businesses give education and the direct training they often must give workers proves education doesn't get the support it should.

"Businesses are having to retrain on basic skills that schools used to deliver," agreed Merle Temple, director of corporate and external affairs for BellSouth in Augusta. His company has been a strong supporter of education.

THE MONEY BUSINESSES spend to give workers basic skills could be better spent, he said, "on research and development and things businesses should be spending it on."

"It's a sad commentary on our education system," Mr. Hamilton said. "I don't think (business) wanted to get into it; I think they were forced into it. We as a society need to a take a look at where we're going and how we can compete in the world marketplace."

Even Mr. Elam, head of the QuickStart program, concedes that, at a time when teamwork is a business buzzword, some workers need help simply learning to work with others in a group.

"Believe it or not, some people just never learned that," he said.

Mr. Temple recalls the eye-opening experience of being on a national panel to set standards for the nation's report card on education.

"The guidelines we set were guidelines by which school systems will be setting their curriculum standards for years to come," he said. "The first night we reviewed sample scores from tests of seniors around the nation. The scores were appalling to many of us, but a group rose to say it was obviously society's fault because America is such a terrible place.

"They suggested we lower the standards to avoid damaging anyone's self-esteem. Therein lies the crux. ... Do you want to challenge a young person to grow, or do you want to demonstrate your compassion by further handicapping his or her chance to compete for jobs in the 21st century?"

Still businesses generally understand they will always have to give special training on specialized skills unique to particular industries.

But, said Mr. Widener, "Business will never ever get away from doing their own training, because some of their training is specific to them. But there again, they'll look to schools to help them."