Job creation has been the mantra of voters and politicians for a few years now. One question: If the jobs do come, will we have anyone to fill them?
That might sound like a silly question, given that April was the first month in almost two years that Georgia’s unemployment rate was below 10 percent. But according to Melvin Everson, it’s not a matter of how many Georgians want to be employed, but how many of them are employable.
Everson, who lost the GOP primary for labor commissioner last summer, was named by Gov. Nathan Deal to lead the Office of Workforce Development. After four months on the job, he said Georgia is in danger of having a mismatch between the skills employers need and the skills potential hires have.
“With the downturn of the economy, we saw a lot of jobs eliminated. Unfortunately, a lot of those jobs will not return to the economy,” he told me Monday. “However, they will be replaced with new jobs that will require a new set of skills. …
“My biggest fear is, when this thing really turns around, we won’t have the work force we need for these jobs that will become available.”
Everson’s efforts entail identifying and matching the skills that are needed with the workers who need to update their skill sets. What worries him is the dearth of Georgians not with college educations, but with technical training.
Maintenance technicians, medical technicians, welders, medical assistants — all are jobs that Everson said will be in greater demand as the economy retools itself and, importantly, baby boomers retire from these positions.
These jobs can’t be off-shored. And, Everson said, if “you come out of these technical colleges with the right background, you’ll make more than some people with a [bachelor’s] degree.”
From a current shortage of welders to help build the new nuclear reactors at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle to an impending shortage of skilled maintenance workers in North Georgia’s textile factories, Everson said his office is “working feverishly to get these individuals in these [skill] areas so this pipeline to the work force can be sufficiently filled.”
“It’s not a de-emphasis on colleges,” he explained. “We should always prepare our students to go to college. … But at the same time, we have to emphasize the importance of our technical colleges. … It’s been out of balance.”
Everson gave an example of how “the two go hand in hand.”
“When a piece of equipment breaks down in a hospital, I’m not going to call a guy … with an MBA. I’m going to call someone with a medical technician background. … Short of that equipment working, that doctor can’t do anything.”
The problem Everson illustrates also speaks to a perennial bugbear of Georgia’s k-12 system — too many dropouts and too few high school graduates. He believes removing some of the stigma from technical education is key to solving both ills.
During a visit to a technical college, Everson said he was stunned by the number of young people studying for a GED (as opposed to people in their 40s or 50s). The teacher said most of them “didn’t see any relevance to what they were learning in high school. So they got bored, burned out, and they dropped out. Whereas, she said if exposed to other career path options more rigorously, the light bulbs will come on and they’ll see that there is some relevance to what’s going on here.”
Ultimately, he said, making students aware of the possibilities and guiding older Georgians toward the most marketable skills are the best ways for the state to “create jobs.”
“This goes a long way toward fostering and creating that environment for the businesses and industries to say we have a work force that we can work with, let’s go ahead and put some jobs over here.”
– By Kyle Wingfield