Chatham County: Stepping Up

Both Chatham County and the city of Savannah are enjoying the benefits of an ongoing economic boom.

“We’re in good shape economically. We’re seeing a great deal of construction in our county,” says Commission Chairman Pete Liakakis.

“We have the Georgia ports, the fastest growing port in the country. Approximately 276,000 jobs have been created, statewide, as a result of the Georgia ports. The largest builder of business jets [Gulfstream] is located here and is adding 1,100 employees. A 2-million-square-foot Target warehouse is opening up.”

But Liakakis’ enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that despite encouraging economic growth, poverty levels remain high, at 22 percent for the city and 15.6 percent for Chatham County as a whole.

But says Daniel Dodd, project director of Step Up, Savannah’s Poverty Reduction Initiative, “The county, under the commission chairman’s leadership, stepped up to address poverty in a big way.” He points to the county’s Construction Apprentice Program (CAP), which won Chatham a county excellence award as an example of how the county is demonstrating its commitment to reducing poverty and breaking its systemic causes.

“We were approached by two members of the commission about creating a workforce development program in construction,” says Dodd, one of only two fulltime staff members. “We surveyed homebuilders about what they wanted and needed in employees.”

The results indicated that, life skills – including conflict management and multitasking as well as the ability to be on time – were highly sought-after. Step Up developed the CAP two-month training program to introduce and reinforce the needs of potential employers.

The program consists of two phases, addressing life skills and work ethic before moving on to classroom and on the job training with contractors, during which participants work a 40-hour week for four weeks in the construction trade of their choice – electrical, brick masonry, plumbing.

Recruiting for program participants takes place in neighborhoods located in high poverty tracts. Men and women, 18 years and older, living at the poverty level or below, are eligible. Not surprisingly, Dodd says the best candidates are those who are open and have the desire to work, particularly in the construction industry. “We’ve found that younger men or women are often more open to learning and more humble with their employers,” he adds.

Funding comes from a variety of sources. Chatham County provides $120,000 annually for administration costs and further demonstrates its commitment to the program by assuming liability for the students, considering them county employees, during their apprenticeships. Students receive a stipend for their time worked. “It’s important that the people in the program earn something,” Dodd says. “They aren’t in a financial position to take off work to learn a trade.”

The Homebuilders Association of Greater Savannah kicks in $40,000 to cover apprenticeship stipends, and Savannah Technical College provides $20,000 of waivers for technical fees. Graduates receive a technical certificate of credit and are placed in jobs with contractors. CAP participants are often paid higher wages because of their skill level; pay for most jobs starts between $10 and $15 per hour.

Of the first class of 24, eight graduated to fulltime employment. Two more classes have since concluded. While the need for more jobs is great, Dodd is in no hurry to grow the program too quickly. “At this point it’s important to keep the program small and manageable,” he says. “We need to keep the bar high and maintain the quality of the students.”

Thus far the county commission is encouraged by what it sees. “We went to a program to hear what the participants were saying about the CAP,” Liakakis recalls. “There were about 14 people who had some very enlightening remarks about what the program had meant to them. Some of them were dropouts or had been jailed and they spoke about having an opportunity to turn their lives around, to have money coming in, and to be constructive citizens.”

Dodd is heartened by Liakakis’ support, and the support of other Chatham County political and business leaders. “The concept of poverty reduction as economic development from within is widely accepted [in the county],” he says. “The Construction Apprenticeship Program can be replicated in a number of different industries that we’re already looking at.”

Categories: Economic Development Features, Features