Spreading the Job Wealth

Spreading the Job Wealth

Hot job prospects are in evidence throughout the state, as demographic shifts and changes in the economy help brighten the employment picture

By Ed Lightsey

From Columbus to the coast, from the industrial corridors of North Georgia to the small, retiree-friendly cities in South Georgia, the best job bets for the immediate future are hiding in plain sight.

They’re in health care, public safety and the construction trades, where opportunities are expected to expand and salaries to rise.

The manufacturing sector will see more changes in job descriptions but job growth will likely remain flat, experts say. In occupations as familiar as the corner cop and as exotic as a programmable logic controller, a wide array of possibilities awaits the eager graduate or the 40-something opting for a new career.

Jobs that didn’t exist a few years ago have become a comfortable part of the language. “Who the heck ever heard of homeland security before 2001?” asks Michael Vollmer, commissioner of the Department of Training and Adult Education, the managing agency for the state’s technical colleges.

“It’s not only terrorism threats,” says Wayne Melton, director of certification and administrative hearings for the Police Officers Standards and Training Council, the organization responsible for qualifying law enforcement officers for duty. “The public safety arena is expanding and it’s not just limited to enforcement officers like police and sheriffs. You have 911 operators, epidemiologists, forensics experts and computer scientists. We are certifying about 2,000 brand new law enforcement officers each year, and every year there are about 12,000 law enforcement positions available. Every police chief you talk to will tell you they are in need of good qualified people.”

The shortage in law enforcement candidates became so critical that in 2004 police officers from Atlanta went to Michigan on a recruiting mission. “They’re going all over the United States trying to recruit people,” Melton says.

Man- and woman-power shortages in the ranks are exacerbated by Georgia’s aging police forces, the demands of a growing population and the lure of increasingly better paying security jobs in private industry, he adds. Experienced corporate security chiefs can earn six-figure incomes, with an average Metro Atlanta police officer earning $36,239, while a rookie cop’s salary in many Georgia rural areas is in the $18,000 range.

Georgia manufacturing, long a high-paying hope for many less educated job seekers, has seen employment decline by about 1.5 percent in each of the last three years as lesser skilled jobs go overseas, says Dr. Jeff Humphreys, director of the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.

But experts note that even as the number of manufacturing jobs has declined, the productivity of the state’s factories has increased. “The fact of the matter is that manufacturing is alive and fairly well,” says DTAE’s Vollmer. “But it is a different kind of manufacturing than most of us are familiar with. I’m 55 and I’m accustomed to seeing people on an assembly line putting stuff together with their hands. But there is a true revolution in manufacturing and the low wage and low skill jobs have either left our country or are leaving.

“Manufacturing is transforming into high tech. People are moving from putting stuff together to repairing robotic arms and using computers to operate machines. An 11th grade education is no longer good enough to get a job in manufacturing. We are talking about [the need for] a change in the culture of the state.”

To meet the shifting needs of manufacturing plants, Gov. Sonny Perdue established the Center for Innovation in Manufacturing Excellence at Lanier Technical College in Gainesville. Vollmer believes the 20,000-square-foot, $3.2 million training facility makes a statement to industry prospects. “It says we are very serious about jobs in manufacturing,” Vollmer says. “We want to have a training center for manufacturing employees where they can come to learn new technology.”

Understanding that technology can be a real earnings booster. An Internet want ad soliciting applicants for a production supervisor position at one Georgia high tech manufacturer lists a starting salary that can reach $70,000 a year, depending on experience.

“If Georgia is going to go out and recruit for these industries, then we have to rev up our training in these areas,” Vollmer says. Right now, some of those areas are begging for people and taxing Vollmer’s resources.

To Your Health

“We have a list of approximately 10,000 people waiting to get into some of our health care programs,” Vollmer says. “There is a huge demand for health care workers and for training health care workers and all of that is going to expand over the next few years because of the aging population.”

Part of that need is due to the aging population of present health care workers themselves, many of whom are reaching retirement, Vollmer says.

In fact, older Georgians and the growing number of retirees from Florida arriving in the state are an almost silent economic force, one that will gain in strength over the next decade and become an important part of the state’s economy, experts say.

“We don’t think about retirees as being an industry, but they are,” says Michael Thurmond, Georgia’s labor commissioner. “And they are a growing political force. Retirees from Florida are selling their homes and moving to Valdosta, and it is becoming a retirement haven. They bring wealth with them, and there is a really hot real estate market in the Valdosta-Lowndes County area right now.”

Other metro areas in Georgia, particularly in the southern third of the state, are quietly benefiting from the senior exodus from Florida, according to students of such demographic phenomena. “Retirees tend to settle in areas that have a good health care industry,” says UGA’s Humphreys. “I think Albany is a regional center for health care and that weighs strongly in its favor. In terms of jobs, I think the best and brightest developments in Albany and Thomasville are going to be attributed to the spillover growth effect from Florida. The economic effect of retirees is there and it is felt, but it happens gradually. It’s not like a big plant opening up and you’re hiring 600 people. It’s off the radar screen.” Retirees fuel jobs in health care, retail sales and real estate, Humphreys says.

The aging population’s link to jobs creation in health care is particularly powerful. Seven of Georgia’s projected top 10 fastest growing occupation sectors over the next six years are in the health care field. Medical assistants (Georgia average hourly wage, $12), medical records and health information technicians ($13.37), home health aides ($8-$10) and respiratory therapists ($19.40), are among the workers that will be in the most demand, according to data supplied by the Georgia Department of Labor (DOL).

In recent years, as health care industries and their allies scrambled to supply the demand, distress signals were going out. ” … by 2010, our state will need over 140,000 new and replacement health care workers ? nearly 30,000 new and replacement nurses will be needed by 2010. Considering that the state presently has some 90,000 registered nurses, the challenge is daunting. Similar statistics exist for other critical programs [in health care],” health experts write in a 2003 report issued by the Georgia Department of Community Health. The report states that even with increased graduation rates among students in health care studies, ” … the demand will continue to outstrip the supply.”

The plentiful job openings in health care are not just limited to the next several years. “I think health and allied services will clearly be one of the hot spots well into the middle of the 21st Century,” says the DOL’s Thurmond. “The biggest beneficiaries of this health care job boom will be the health care centers in metro areas with major hospitals. But I think there will also be activity in smaller hospitals because of the retirees and the aging population. And too, there just seems to always be a shortage in health care.”

According to figures supplied by Thurmond’s office, employment growth in health care will double, and in some categories even triple the state’s projected 1.8 percent annual increase in new jobs among all occupations over the next seven years.

The Columbus Boom

For most of the next decade, the Columbus area is going to be the hottest growth spot in Georgia, both in population and new jobs. ” … [the growth will be] like adding a city the size of LaGrange,” says an October report on the population explosion expected from the expansion of the mission of the Army’s Fort Benning. The report from Fort Benning Futures Partnership says the coming demands on educational facilities and the additional student load “is like adding the University of Georgia … ” to the community.

“I think Columbus is going to see the fastest-paced growth in the state because of the ‘R’ in BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure],” Humphreys says. He is referring to Fort Benning and the Pentagon’s decisions not only to keep the base open, but to expand its mission as well.

“The number of military employees, contractors and civilian employees will grow by 10,000 over the next four years,” Humphreys says. “And in addition to that there is going to be another 15,000 spouses and children. So you get multiplier effects on their direct spending. This will mean literally thousands of additional jobs in the off-base economy as all of these people spend their money in the Columbus area.”

Humphreys says a construction boom further brightens the jobs picture in Columbus. According to the Fort Benning Futures report, new construction on- and off-base will total $3.2 billion over the next four years, attracting 3,000 contractors and spreading jobs and wealth throughout the area. New jobs in education, health care and the construction trades will spring up in all of the nine counties around Columbus, the report predicts.

“You are seeing a major restoration and replacement of the existing stock of on-base housing,” Humphreys says. “That is really benefiting the construction sector, which will become important as mortgage rates go back up. And, too, the troop rotation in Columbus is going to be seven years instead of two years and that makes it much more likely that military personnel are going to buy a house or otherwise invest in the community.”

Longer stays on base will also create stronger emotional ties to Columbus among service personnel, which could prove a key factor in the local economy, Humphreys says. “That potentially gives more support than has been true in the past for retiree-based development,” he says, all of which contributes to jobs creation.

Georgia’s hospitality industry has shown an ability to weather the many storms that buffeted the state’s economy following the 2001 recession, recording marked improvements from 2003-04. During that period, the state’s hotel revenues rose to $2.5 billion, an increase of more that 9 percent. At the same time every travel region in the state showed gains of at least 6 percent in tourism revenues, according to a 2005 report from the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

Port Prosperity

One sector of the state’s economy that seems immune to downswings is the revenue generated by Georgia’s ports. The ports of Savannah and Brunswick continue to set new records for growth in every year thus far of the 21st century.

According to a 2005 report from the International Trade Association (ITA), a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, 15 percent of all the state’s manufacturing jobs depend on exports. More significant, according to the ITA study, is the fact that 83 percent of the 9,320 companies exporting from Georgia locations were of small or medium size, with fewer than 500 employees.

“If I had to pick a second place finisher [for economic and jobs growth] it would be Brunswick,” says UGA’s Humphreys. “We have the port doing very well, but Brunswick is not running on just one cylinder. It not only has retiree-based development and that growing port, but it also has a very successful tourism industry. Savannah is third with that robust port, one of the five fastest growing in the world and a rapidly growing logistics and transportation sector and a lot of activity in retiree-based development, second homes and tourism.”

The Savannah and Brunswick ports have become centers of multi-modal transportation and the cargo and vehicles coming off the ships have spread jobs throughout the trucking industry.

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