Outlook January 2007

My son-in-law, Dr. Ted Wansley, teaches high school science in suburban Atlanta. On the first day of the new school year, he was lecturing his students on the importance of a college education. You need a degree, he said, to succeed in today’s competitive environment.

Suddenly, the school’s air-conditioning system quit working. After he and his colleagues – all college graduates, some with advanced degrees – were unsuccessful in fixing the problem, everyone shuffled outside into the August heat to await an air-conditioning repairman. When the repairman arrived, the system was quickly repaired and classes resumed. At that point a student raised his hand and asked, “So, Dr. Wansley, do you still think everybody needs a college education?”

Mike Vollmer laughs when I tell him the story. “Your son-in-law learned the value of a technical education the hard way,” he says. Vollmer retired in December as the Commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Technical and Adult Education (DTAE), one of the state’s underappreciated assets, after two years at the helm. Last year, more than 27,000 students graduated from Georgia’s 34 technical schools spread throughout the state. Amazingly, 98 percent were immediately employed or chose to continue their education. The department estimates that the most recent graduates represent nearly $500 million in annual payroll and about $30 million in new tax revenues to the state.

Today’s state-of-the art technical education consists of more than 600 programs that range from robotics, avionics, criminal justice and golf course management to culinary arts, motorsports technology and digital video production.

Yet, many people still consider technical education to be blue collar schools teaching people how to weld, repair a carburetor or operate an X-ray machine.

“We still do those things, too,” the former commissioner says, “but today our students are learning to weld underwater because Georgia’s maritime industry has great need for that particular skill.” As for auto mechanics, Vollmer says many of them make as much as $65,000 in their first year on the job.

In 2005, Gov. Sonny Perdue created a Commission for a New Georgia that identified six strategic industries critical to the state’s future economic well being, including health care, logistics and transportation, energy and environment, aerospace, agribusiness and life sciences. Roughly 40 percent of last year’s graduates earned diplomas, degrees or certificates in areas that fall within those industry clusters. “Georgia increasingly will be in the market for highly-skilled workers,” Vollmer predicts, “and the jobs will be high-wage.”

The Department of Technical and Adult Education is an important player in the state’s economic development efforts. Quick Start training programs are offered free of charge to industries looking to move to Georgia, and those already here who are implementing new technologies and need help evaluating new hires, production issues and improved efficiencies.

Vollmer says 70 percent of Quick Start’s training activities last year took place outside Metro Atlanta, and more than a third were in rural areas. Quick Start was a key component in helping land the new Kia plant to be located in West Point. At no cost to the Korean auto manufacturer, the department will help identify and train some 2,800 workers for the plant. “Many states focus only on tax incentives,” he says. “Georgia focuses on providing a highly trained workforce ready to go to work.”

Another area of emphasis within the department is adult literacy. More than 1 million adults in Georgia over the age of 25 don’t have a high school diploma. The U.S. Department of Labor says this means more than $2 billion in additional costs to Georgia employers. The DTAE enrolled some 100,000 students in adult literacy programs last year, including some 36,000 in English language programs. More than 18,000 Georgians received a GED.

With all the success the DTAE enjoys in the state’s current and future plans, one thing still irks department officials – its image. The schools, Vollmer says, “are Georgia’s best-kept secret.” To remedy that, the DTAE is contacting high school and middle school counselors, parents, teachers and students. “…We have to show students how a quality technical education can mean enormous career opportunities for them in Georgia,” Vollmer says.

. Though low profile, they are a jewel in Georgia’s crown. As Vollmer points out, these aren’t your daddy’s trade schools anymore.

Dick Yarbrough is a retired corporate executive. Contact him at dick@dickyarbrough.com.

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