On the road to strengthening the area’s economic vitality, Liberty County leaders last week acknowledged that workforce weaknesses could be hampering industrial growth. They have created a task force to face the concerns.
Workforce development was ranked among the top priorities during the annual Liberty Countywide planning workshop May 30-31, and Georgia EMC facilitator Niki Knox asked Liberty County Development Authority CEO Ron Tolley to speak on the issue.
The industrial-sector employment trend in Liberty County runs contrary to the national decline, Tolley said. Liberty has grown its industrial employment during the past 30 years from about 500 to 2,800 jobs.
Identifying the problem
“There are some things that can help us continue the trend, and some things that can hurt us on the trend,” Tolley said. “Really, we have done about all we can do as far as obtaining the land, putting infrastructure on the land, getting people to put buildings up, … by and large, we have product.”
“What is hurting us from this growing larger at this point is that when anyone talks about coming into the county, … one thing they’re going to do is talk to the existing employers and ask them, ‘How are things going?’” Tolley continued.
The answer to that question often includes positive marks on relationships between the governments and businesses, but “our weakest point is the quality of the existing workforce in Liberty County.”
Tolley said he has heard a number of stories about local job applicants being turned away or ruled out due to inability to pass drug tests. He also hears stories that people are hired but do not have the work ethics required to maintain their positions.
“Too often, th ey have to bring people in from outside of the area to fill those high-skilled jobs because we aren’t producing the labor force that has the skills that are needed in today’s world,” Tolley said.
“That’s why the authority has been focusing on working with Savannah Tech and working with the Liberty College and Career Academy,” which will enter its second year of operations on Airport Road this fall.
Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission planning director Rachel Hatcher, a Liberty County native who attended the University of Georgia, asked whether the issue truly stems from workforce weaknesses or a shortage of high-skilled jobs.
“I left the Liberty County area, and it took the better part of 10 years to be able to come back because I got a very skilled degree, and the demand was not there for me to come back in quite some time,” Hatcher said. “So if we’re producing these skilled laborers and the jobs aren’t there for them, are we going to be sending them away?”
Tolley said his ideal would be to see area natives fill high-skilled jobs as opposed to the current situation, where employers like Firth Rixson and SNF Chemtall hire graduates from Georgia Tech, Clemson and the University of Florida.
“This isn’t solely Liberty County by any means; Coastal Georgia has this situation … the employers in Savannah say the very same thing. ‘It’s really hard for us to find the employees we need.’ When Gulfstream expands, Gulfstream has to recruit outside of the area as well.”
Savannah Technical College President Dr. Kathy Love also weighed in, saying for the most part, she agreed.
“There’s also a slightly different side to that. Many times, when existing industries are asked about workforce by potential industries, they may not give the most flattering stories because they may not want that competition coming in necessarily,” Love said. “But he’s correct. It’s not a Liberty County problem. It’s not a Coastal Georgia problem. It’s a nationwide problem.”
Love added that certain types of engineering jobs always will be filled from other areas due to where education programs are located.
“But the losing of 50 percent of applicants to drug issues does make a good story … But you and I all know that nobody drug tests all your applicants. You don’t drug test until you make an offer to someone. …,” she said. “And it certainly demonstrates the fact that we have social issues that Savannah Tech cannot address, that in many cases, the schools cannot address. It has to take place in the home.”
Though it seldom is addressed in open meetings, workshop participants acknowledged that the problem isn’t new. Consequently, the gears already are in motion to create solutions — but laying the foundation in K-12 schools means gratification is delayed.
In education, career preparation and establishment of “soft skills,” such as resume writing and how to behave when applying for a job, have become greater priorities.
The Liberty College and Career Academy also is addressing workforce issues. The half-day charter school program serves high-school sophomores, juniors and seniors who attend Bradwell Institute or Liberty County High School.
Known on campus as “associates,” students who pursue career pathways at the academy also are required to complete ethics and professional-development courses that address those soft skills, according to LCCA CEO Tom Alexander. The program is available both for college-bound students and those who plan to transition directly into the workforce upon graduation.
Prior to opening at its own campus at the start of the 2012-13 school year, the program operated at Bradwell Institute. That means program graduates are beginning to emerge, with numbers expected to rise in coming years.
Liberty County Commission Chairman Donald Lovette, who also is chairman of the Savannah Tech board of directors, added that Savannah Tech and Gulfstream have a direct partnership where the aircraft manufacturer provides instructors to the school who can teach the skills the company requires.
But like Love said, some of the underlying issues begin at home, which can limit the effectiveness of in-school programs.
During the workshop, a focus group discussed strategies for enhancing workforce development. During a large-group debriefing, Fort Stewart lead management analyst Phyllis Taylor presented the group’s ideas.
“We actually came up with two goals, and we divided our goals by the employers and the employees,” Taylor said.
The first goal is to engage employers, including Fort Stewart, and determine what type of skills they are seeking in job candidates. They also will seek to increase apprenticeship and internship opportunities for current students.
The second goal is to engage the workforce, especially the 18-24 demographic that no longer benefits from K-12 initiatives. Taylor said soldiers ending their time in the service will be included, as well as those who can be reached through the Department of Labor and social-service organizations.
Benefits include retaining existing industries and increasing ability to land new industries, and a higher percentage of Liberty County residents employed within the county. While development authority and chamber representatives were in attendance, business and industrial leaders were not present for the conversation.
The action plans include building a task force that will collect data through focus groups and surveys and developing a comprehensive list of skill gaps that educators, Savannah Tech and K-12 schools can use to tailor their training opportunities. Tolley was tapped to spearhead the group.
Taylor acknowledged that funding and community and employer participation present obstacles to the success, in addition to the time needed to reap a benefit from the initiatives.