Growing local tech talent

Chris Van Es/NewsArt

Chris Van Es/NewsArt

Moderated by Rick Badie

Today we focus on workforce quality when it comes to the region’s technology sector. A statewide shortage of tech talent means major employers like Home Depot have to scramble to fill positions and often look to other states. A state lawmaker says the shortage shouldn’t come as a surprise, given cuts in support to technical colleges. An economic development official outlines efforts to address the skilled workforce shortage.

Close skills gap for higher wages

By Stacey Evans

A recent news report described the problem Home Depot, one of Georgia’s great businesses, faces trying to fill skilled job openings in our state. Home Depot, unfortunately, is not alone in needing more skilled workers than are available in Georgia. It’s a problem many industries have faced in recent years.

In Georgia, 185,000 skilled professionals are needed yearly for our workforce. One of our best tools for meeting that need has traditionally been the HOPE Grant, a program that once provided full tuition to technical college attendees.

Following drastic cuts to the HOPE Grant in 2011, technical colleges lost about 45,000 students, roughly 25 percent of their enrollments. This represented a revenue loss of more than $136 million for a system charged with training a skilled workforce. Without students in the classrooms and support from the state, we can’t produce more skilled workers to fill jobs. And without tuition assistance, many students cannot afford to pay.

Since the 2011 cuts, my office has researched these issues. What is increasingly clear is that the loss of so many technical college students in less than two years is one of the main factors in our growing skills gap. We have not kept that information to ourselves.

It’s shocking and disappointing that Home Depot’s inability to fill its labor needs with Georgians came as a surprise to the state’s top economic development, education and workforce development officials. That Georgia faces a skills gap isn’t news to me, nor to our technical college leaders. And it’s not a surprise to Home Depot, NCR, Porsche and others struggling to fill open jobs.

Over the past two legislative sessions, I have sought to reduce the skills gap by helping to get more students into our technical colleges. In 2013, I worked with legislators to extend the HOPE Grant to students who maintain a GPA at or above 2.0. In this most recent session, I worked with Gov. Nathan Deal to create the Zell Miller HOPE Grant. It pays full tuition for technical college students who maintain a 3.5 or higher GPA.

While I am proud of what we were able to accomplish in a bipartisan fashion, we can and should go farther. My original 2014 legislation would have fully funded technical school tuition.

I was happy to work with the governor to take incremental steps to fix the failed reforms of 2011 so that more families will have better-paying jobs, and businesses will have a more skilled workforce.

But the gasps from the state’s top officials sadly suggest they are just realizing what anyone paying attention should already know: We aren’t doing nearly enough as a state to close the skills gap. I hope we will work with greater urgency to close that gap. It’s a way to put more Georgians to work for higher wages and help Georgia businesses thrive.

State Rep. Stacey Evans is a Democrat from Smyrna.

Workforce issues are on our radar

By Ben Hames

In the global contest for investment and jobs, Georgia often wins.

Since the beginning of 2011, Georgia has attracted more than 1,100 new businesses, each representing a vote cast for the ecosystem our state has created for business – the intersection of selling points ranging from sunny weather and an accommodative regulatory structure to a diverse and talented workforce. CNBC has ranked Georgia’s workforce the best in the nation twice.

Despite accolades, Georgia companies tell us their biggest challenge is a shortage of well-educated, highly skilled workers. Gov. Nathan Deal has tasked the state team — from the Georgia Department of Economic Development to the University System of Georgia — to identify and address worforce shortages. We have ramped up that effort through a public-private partnership, the Governor’s High Demand Career Initiative (HDCI), which brings state and business leaders together to “find out what is broken and fix it.”

We believe the two-way dialogue will help connect the dots in areas where post-secondary programs and other existing state assets can be more fully utilized. We also anticipate the initiative will lead to radically revised and new economic development programs.

Through 12 meetings around the state, and with up to 100 companies providing reports, the initiative will provide a real-time picture of workforce issues. We expect to learn some new lessons and details regarding issues already on our radar, such as in skilled trades: Employers are unable to fill positions in construction, plumbing, pipe fitting and truck driving, to name a few concerns.

We launched “Go Build Georgia” almost three years ago to change public perception of skilled trade careers. In the last two legislative sessions, the General Assembly passed legislation whereby the HOPE Grant will pay full tuition for Technical College System of Georgia students in seven high-demand areas such as commercial driving, practical nursing, welding and diesel mechanics.

Whatever the results of the initiative, it will be driven by Georgia business. Our mandate is clear: double down on workforce development.

In the medical devices sector, that is exactly what is happening. Quick Start, Georgia’s top-ranked workforce training system, has delivered solutions for new and expanding life science companies including Accellent, Alcon, AngioDynamics and Ethicon.

The technical college system has instituted fast-track certification programs in the life sciences. In 2012 alone, the university system awarded more than 4,700 bachelor of science degrees in biotech and health-related programs. The Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University graduated 190 students.

The ecosystem Georgia has created in the medical devices sector is a model we hope to replicate in other industries. We seek to hear from and deliver for business. We believe this is one more powerful example of our commitment to ensure Georgia remains the No. 1 state in the nation in which to do business.

Ben Hames is deputy commissioner for the Workforce Division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

One comment Add your comment

Tom Horner

May 5th, 2014
10:07 am

Sorry, but I do not buy this in the least. I am a very experienced IT person, and my specialty is database administration, supposedly one that is in “high demand”. I left one of the companies mentioned in the article in 2012, and since then every interview I go on I have been either told or I can tell there are multiple candidates for every position open, usually more than 15! Colleagues tell me the same thing if they are looking for work. I believe that this “skills gap” exists not because of the lack of candidates, but because companies no longer want to train or “build” their employees as was done when I started in IT years ago. There are probably other reasons also, such as pay rates – overseas employees are cheaper.