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Neely Young: A Better Workforce

 

In many ways, we are still experiencing hard times. The Great Recession that started in 2007 has hit Georgia with more force than many other areas of the country. Just four years ago, Georgia’s housing industry dropped to levels not seen since 1933.

During the recession, the state lost 340,000 jobs and is still down by 188,000; while there is a recovery, it is very timid. Atlanta’s and Geor-gia’s employment situations might not see much improvement until 2018, say some economists.

One part of the state, though, is bucking the trend, according to Georgia Trend’s Economic Yearbook published in this issue. The coastal community in Southeast Georgia is known for its military-based economy and for being the state’s playground, with tourist dollars pouring in because of historic Savannah, St. Simons, Little St. Simons, Sea Island and the newly refurbished Jekyll Island. The Port of Savannah and the Port of Brunswick are anchors and drivers for economic activity.

But there is much more. One word that describes the economic development in South-east Georgia is diversity. This industrial diversity could be the reason things will be getting better here faster than in the rest of Georgia.

For instance, Jesup is in the center of one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. The area is called the Fiber Belt, because the pulp and pellet sectors are so strong. Paper manufacturing giant Rayonier is investing another $300 million in its plant to convert it to 100 percent specialty pulp manufacturing.

Waycross is home to the largest wood pellet plant in North America, operated by Georgia Biomass. The $160-million plant employs nearly 100 workers.

Waycross also has the largest railroad shipping yard on the east coast. There, CSX’s shipping hub processes rail cargo coming from the port in Savannah.

In Hinesville, most of the employment comes from manufacturing. The county’s tagline, “Come Grow Globally,” is evident, with several foreign companies including French-owned chemical manufacturer SNF FloQuip, German-owned Hugo Boss and British company Firth Rixon.

Another big success story is Gulfstream Aerospace, which makes private aircraft and is one of the largest manufacturers in Georgia. Gulfstream employs 8,600 highly skilled workers, more than Lockheed Martin in Marietta. Gulfstream has plans to hire even more new employees. The Savannah area also has the 1,500-acre Pooler megasite that is drawing interest from manufacturing companies from the UK, Brazil and Japan. The industrial park is anchored by Mitsubishi Power Systems, which employs 350 workers.

Southeast Georgia is also famous for blueberries, grown in the same sweet soil that produces our more famous Vidalia onions. Agri-culture is big business and drives the economy in many ways.

All of these companies and industries are job creators and need skilled employees with college degrees. Our university and technical college systems have plans to help Georgia increase degreed workers.

Hank Huckaby, chancellor of the University System of Georgia, and Ron Jackson, head of the Technical College System of Georgia, estimate that 250,000 additional college graduates are needed to fill future industry jobs. Sixty percent of future employees will need some sort of college degree to enter the workforce.

Huckaby and Jackson want to partner with business and industry, foundations and other entities to reach out to unemployed adults who might be retrained through the university and technical college systems.

They want to work with you to solve Geor-gia’s high school dropout problem: In some areas of the state, the dropout rate is more than 60 percent.

We need more high school graduates and college graduates to help fill the state’s future jobs; otherwise, industry will have to go elsewhere to look for its workforce.

How can we in the business community help? By encouraging workers to go back and earn their degrees. They can do it part time while they hold down their present jobs or go back full time, with a promise they can return to work once they get their diploma.

We need additional students to complete educational programs that will build a better workforce in Georgia.

You can help create an educational system that will build a strong workforce to attract employers to the great state of Georgia.

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