Community leaders, business officials and citizens gathered at the Liberty College and Career Academy Thursday to hear a “year-in-review” update from the Liberty County Development Authority.
LCDA CEO Ron Tolley delivered a presentation of the organization’s highlights from 2014.
Tolley said that last year, Liberty County saw industrial-sector jobs surpass the 3,000 mark.
According to Tolley, the manufacturing sector accounts for 21 percent of the county’s employees – second only to the military and civil service, which makes up 34 percent.
Tolley also compared Liberty County’s overall industrial-sector change over the last 32 years with that of the U.S. as a whole.
He said that from 1981 to 2013, the industrial sector declined throughout the U.S. by about 31.89 percent. Liberty County, on the other hand, saw industry increase by 461 percent in the same time span.
Tolley cited Floquip, a division of SNF, as an example of the county’s industrial growth.
“They started out in a 10,000 square-foot building on the SNF main property in Riceboro,” he said. “In 2011, they moved to the Midway Industrial Park to an 80,000 square-foot building,” which also allowed the company to increase employment, Tolley noted.
Tolley said that last year, Floquip notified the LCDA that it would need to double the size of its facility, and construction currently is under way on a new, 160,000 square-foot building, which will again expand the company’s employment by 30 percent.
“That’s one of the nice things after you recruit someone here,” Tolley said. “If they find fertile soil, they can get what they need as far as cooperation with the government, the ability to put together a labor force … then they can stay here and expand.”
Tolley also noted highlights such as Firth Rixson’s acquisition by Alcoa – which will increase the company’s local job base by 100 positions – and the installation of a high-pressure gas line leading to Tradeport East Business Center.
Following his presentation, Tolley introduced Fred Tucker, director of human resources for SNF. Tucker spoke about the inception of the Liberty County Manufacturing Collaboration and its partnership with Savannah Technical College and the LCCA.
Tucker said that four years ago, he and leaders from the area’s three other leading manufacturers – Alcoa, Elan Technologies and Interstate Resources – were invited to hear a presentation from Tom Alexander, CEO of the college and career academy.
“To be quite honest, none of us were real excited about going out there to listen to Tom, because we thought, ‘This is the new-age vo-tech,’ and we weren’t sure how that really tied into us,” he said.
Tucker said that after he heard Alexander speak, he and his fellow manufacturing representative realized there “was a real opportunity for manufacturing to get involved with this career academy,” which he called a “world-class facility.”
“There’s a lot of rival communities around here that would love to have this infrastructure and love to have this opportunity for their students,” he noted.
Tucker said that SNF leaders, along with the leadership of the other three major manufacturers, realized they all could increase their pools of qualified candidates by forming a coalition to leverage the “feeder system” of the LCCA and Fort Stewart.
He said the idea also was spurred by the relatively low number of students taking advantage of the career academy’s manufacturing offerings, which “told us as manufacturers (that) we were not doing a very good job of marketing the opportunities here, because if the students truly understood that starting salaries in these entry-level positions are around $30,000 … they would start to realize what opportunities existed within their own community.”
The Liberty County Manufacturing Collaboration now operates a two-year apprenticeship program for high-school seniors who meet certain qualifications.
Eight slots are available in each iteration, and the apprentices spend the first year rotating between each of the four manufacturers. During the second year, the students choose one industry to focus on.
The apprentices make $10 an hour, which Tucker said is a “tremendous opportunity for them, because they’re going to see an aerospace manufacturer at Alcoa … a chemical manufacturer at SNF … a specialty manufacturer at Elan Technologies … and a paper process at Interstate Resources.”