Southwire Company leaders noticed a looming problem in the early 2000s.
With the economy expanding, the wire and cable maker in Carrollton was concerned that schools weren’t churning out enough adequately educated students to fill its employment pipeline.
The company faced a shortage of people with diplomas and found that those who had graduated were often not ready to work. It started a training and high school education program and incorporated it with hands-on work so students could see the practical uses of what they were learning. It succeeded for both, giving Southwire the labor force it needed while helping students graduate.
The company created its own solution to a problem plaguing many Georgia companies: too many job applicants lack adequate education and skills. In some cases, that has caused companies to move jobs to other states, like Home Depot did in the past few years when it built tech centers in California and Texas.
That is lost money that could be lining Georgians’ pockets and filling tax coffers to build schools and roads. Instead it goes elsewhere because of the gap between the skills that jobs require and the skills Georgians bring.
The gap is wide, and projections show Georgia jobs will require more training. In five years, 60 percent of jobs in the state will require post-secondary education, either a degree or certificate. But only 38 percent of Georgia high school sophomores get that far, according to a recent Atlanta Regional Commission study.
That gap is the problem, the chasm between success or failure in the future. Figure out how to bridge it, and Georgia advances; make no progress, and the state risks being surpassed by competitors.
State falls behind
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this year tallied jobs, wages and population growth to see how the region is faring five years after the Great Recession. We weighed ourselves against Sunbelt competitors such as Charlotte and Dallas. Atlanta trailed in most categories, sometimes by a wide margin.
For instance, while per capita income nationally has climbed during the recovery, Georgia’s, at about $39,000 a year, is lower than it was in 2000, according to the ARC.
How did Georgia get in a position where it is playing catch-up? Interviews with about two dozen local and national education experts, civic and business leaders and students offer explanations why Georgia is treading water. The answers include miscommunication between educators and business leaders about the skills gap, sporadic involvement in skills development by business owners (particularly in rural Georgia), frequent turnover of education leaders, and inadequate state funding for education.
Georgia is one of 30 states that provided less funding per student for the 2014-2015 school year than they did before the recession, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Georgia spent 11 percent less per student in fiscal 2015 than in fiscal 2008, when the recession began.
Georgia’s colleges are producing some students with high-level skills and degrees in areas like engineering, but many of them leave for employment in other places. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has repeatedly lamented the brain drain of talent, noting that only about half of Georgia Tech graduates remain in Georgia.
Georgia has long imported talent to fill some of its jobs, but there still exists a shortage of workers to fill middle-skilled jobs — those that require a high school diploma and some post-secondary credential or education, such as welders, but not necessarily a four-year degree.
Look at the projected growth jobs in Georgia, and licensed truck drivers are number one, followed by software developers. Registered nurses, another highly educated job, is number three, followed by retail sales positions, which require less training but solid people skills. Georgia’s economy remains a mix of new and old economy jobs, but the skill sets for both in the 21st century are higher than they were for previous generations.
Meeting the challenge
Southwire’s cooperative education program, 12 For Life, attracted national attention and praise from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for finding workable solutions.
Southwire started its first group of 71 students in 2007 and now enrolls and hires about 300 students a year from area high schools.
Video: How the Southwire program works
Zach Harness, 17, who started Villa Rica High School with failing grades and behind on credits two years ago, now mans high-powered machinery on a morning shift at Southwire before taking classes at the factory later in the day. Without the program he says he would have graduated, eventually.
“But it would have been hard,” he said.
Georgia leaders are replicating the model with other companies on smaller scales around the state, and Southwire has begun a second 12 For Life operation in Florence, Ala. But many companies struggle with filling open jobs, as Georgia executives told government leaders in a series of meetings in 2014.
The skills gap exists in metro Atlanta, but the numbers are even worse in rural areas, exacerbating the “two Georgias” divide — prosperous metro areas and mostly impoverished rural counties whose populations, tax base and school systems are shrinking, sticking them in a downward spiral.
In eight Georgia counties, mostly rural, at least 30 percent of the adult population lack a high school diploma or GED.
To find enough workers, LMC Manufacturing in southwest Georgia, a leading designer and manufacturer of food processing equipment, has hired from as far as Pennsylvania.
Marcus Carter, who runs the company, said the problems begin in high school.
“At the high school level, our counselors aren’t promoting technology-based education,” he said.
Then there’s the rural brain-drain. In a group of about 25 hires from the area, only about two employees will remain at the company long-term, Carter said. Young people from the area who get educated often move on.
“It’s hard keeping people here,” he said. In his area of the state, many students graduate from high school, leave for college and often don’t come back. Some of those who do return come back to help with the family farms.
Georgia education and political leaders have been trying to find solutions.
In metro Atlanta, some schools are beginning to try new programming that will prepare students for both college and non-degree jobs.
Some have carved up high schools into academies where students pick a career and shape their class schedule around that interest. Graduation rates have risen in two-thirds of Atlanta city schools over the past three years. Atlanta, though, has ditched some if its academies and theme-based schools. Gwinnett County, Georgia’s largest school district, started academies last year in five high schools that were in the lower half of graduation rates. Gwinnett expanded the academies to two more high schools, including its newest school, this year.
Gov. Nathan Deal included Georgia in a national campaign to increase the number of people in the state with college credentials. The governor and the state’s college systems pledged an additional 250,000 graduates by 2025 through the Complete College Georgia initiative.
There’s also a new strategic industries program in Georgia, providing a free technical college education to students enrolling in programs to secure credentials and degrees for targeted high-demand careers, such as truck driving, welding and computer technology. And, the state’s university and technical college systems have partnered with the schools systems and area businesses to make it easier for students to enroll in college classes while in high school, inspire Georgians with some college credits to finish their programs and offer tax credits to companies for employees who complete their GEDs.
Some educators note the skills students learn in vocational classes can lead to good jobs, though vocational classes lost much of their popularity in recent decades as they’ve developed a stigma as places to warehouse low-performing students.
A few Georgia schools, like Gwinnett’s Maxwell High, specialize in vocational trades like automotive repair, culinary arts and welding. But Georgia does not have data on how many vocational public schools there are in the state.
Video: What 12 for Life students say
Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, believes American schools need to embrace comprehensive vocational training programs like Southwire’s to help students gain the necessary skills to compete when they graduate.
“Almost none of this happens in the United States,” he said.
By comparison, New Jersey, which ranks among the top 10 states nationally in many education statistics, has dozens of vocational schools. It’s not a cheap model to implement. New Jersey spends more money per pupil — $18,977 — than any state except New York, according to a Georgia State University study. Georgia spends half as much, $9,402, which puts it 34th nationally.
Though many companies used to do what Southwire has done — invest in employee training — fewer do so today.
Former DeKalb County school system superintendent Michael Thurmond, also a former state Labor Department commissioner, said many employers cut back job training programs after the Great Recession, which has put the onus on schools to do more to prepare students for the work world.
“The expectation to train the workers has shifted to the educational system,” Thurmond said.
Removing the silos
On a recent Wednesday morning, Deal, who has been listening to companies and proposing changes to bridge the skills gap, spoke about Georgia’s challenges at a High Demand Career Initiative meeting in Atlanta.
That afternoon, extra chairs were needed at an Atlanta Regional Commission subcommittee meeting where about 75 educators, elected officials and civic leaders – nearly all from metro Atlanta – listened to a panel of business leaders discuss the challenges of finding skilled workers.
Once upon a time, this sort of discussion with businesses didn’t happen, said Ann W. Cramer, the head of the ARC subcommittee and a senior consultant at an Atlanta fundraising firm. Entrepreneurs railed about the problem to other entrepreneurs. Educators talked among themselves. Everyone was in their own silo, Cramer said. That changed a few years ago with a series of reports that concluded education and workforce development were key to Georgia’s economic development.
Observers say businesses have to be more involved, particularly in rural areas, where unemployment rates are higher and test scores are lower.
“The relationship shouldn’t be unilateral,” said Jordan Posamentier, deputy policy director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, based at the University of Washington. “It’s incumbent on business leaders to say ‘Hey, this is what I’m looking for and here’s how I can help.’ I think that’s not happening, especially in rural areas.”
The panelists were asked what they could do to help.
“What I would like is to be part of curriculum development,” said David Bergmann, president of a Fayette County manufacturing company.
During the meeting, the panelists detailed their needs: young people who communicate well, who know their way around Microsoft Excel, who can work well in a group and can lift their eyes from their smartphone when someone is speaking to them. Weaknesses in those soft skills are a constant complaint among business leaders and others who work at major Georgia companies.
Georgia educators have heard the concerns.
The state education department’s goal is to better develop the state’s work-based programs and other initiatives, said program manager Dwayne Hobbs. About 10 percent of Georgia’s high school students participate in some type of cooperative education, internship, apprenticeship or clinical experience. They want to increase that rate.
“Our focus is to get students into career pathways where demand is great, so they will be employable,” he said. “For every student we succeed, that is one slot in the (skills) gap.”
“Are we there yet? No,” said Cramer, the ARC subcommittee’s chairwoman. “Are we on it? Yes.”
John Campbell, principal of Gwinnett County’s new Discovery High School, had a question for his two adult children one day: “What could we have done in high school to better prepare you for your experience at (the University of) Georgia?”
Neither had taken a single business class in high school, said Campbell. “No room in the schedule.”
Many say Georgia schools have not focused on the life and work skills students need to join the middle class. Once a national leader in education initiatives, the state today is in the middle of the pack, or lower, in categories like graduation rates. And the educational requirements for good jobs continue to grow.
In five years, more than 60 percent of the available jobs will require some type of education beyond high school, which most Georgians are not obtaining.
That’s not a hopeful sign. As Michael Thurmond, a former state Labor Department commissioner and former DeKalb County school superintendent, said, “Ultimately, our K-12 system is where you build your workforce if you have any hope of being prosperous and profitable.”
Several dozen interviews with local and national education experts suggest many Georgia school districts often lack innovative approaches to prepare students for life after high school or college.
Campbell said programs at Discovery High, which opened last month, came about because Gwinnett school system officials “turned us loose” to come up with ideas to produce more students who are college and career-ready. Discovery has four academies that allow students to study careers that interest them, including one geared toward business and entrepreneurship.
“In some school districts, this might have been stopped,” Campbell said, because of reluctance to do things in new ways.
That wasn’t always characteristic of Georgia. It pioneered universal pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds regardless of family income, and its HOPE scholarship program for college students became a model that others copied.
Now, five states and Washington, D.C. have a higher percentage of four-year-olds in pre-k. “It really hasn’t been augmented,” Steve Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, said. “We’re not leading the pack anymore.”
And for HOPE, lottery revenues slowed, a recession occurred, tuition rose and eligibility was tightened. Today, only about one-third of students in the state’s public college and university system receive the scholarship, and more than one-third lose it after the first year, according to data from the University System of Georgia. As college costs continue to rise, so does Georgians’ student loan debt, which hobbles the economy.
“A college degree is more important than ever, yet it may be priced out of reach for many students,” said Claire Suggs, senior education policy analyst with the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
“HOPE was a national leader and looks to have had positive effects, but it hasn’t been enough,” said Anthony Carnevale, research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Some other places have taken leads in classroom innovation. Houston is one. All Houston high schools offer at least 15 Advanced Placement courses and have a program, funded by a charitable foundation, to help high-achieving students – many of them low-income – get into Ivy League and other top-tier colleges.
Nashville has become a destination for educators seeking to learn more about its academies, which partner with businesses to teach courses. Campbell, the Gwinnett principal, planned a trip to Nashville to review the program.
Another challenge for Georgia, as Carnevale noted: Opportunity isn’t equal across the state. “Outside Atlanta there are places where no employer is going to move because they don’t have the workforce, and they don’t have the workforce because they don’t have the jobs. For a governor this is a tough problem.”
Disparity between affluent and poor areas also shows up in student achievement data, but Georgia hasn’t changed its main school funding formula in decades. Deal vowed during his re-election campaign in 2014 to fix it but delayed the task after pushback from state lawmakers asked to find a solution.
Frequent personnel changes in education can be another obstacle to implementing changes. DeKalb County has had five superintendents in the past decade. Clayton County has had six, including two interim superintendents, during the same time span. Between 1997 and 2011, Fulton County had seven superintendents.
Still, business leaders say the state’s reputation as pioneering some education programs remains a selling point.
When the Georgia Chamber of Commerce recruits companies, “We talk a lot about pre-K and HOPE,” said Chris Clark, president and CEO. “We always lead with our University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia. They are the envy of the nation.”
Also, Georgia’s QuickStart job training program offers qualified companies free employee training through the technical college system. Companies from Caterpillar to Kia and Toyo Tire have benefited, and with the tech college ties have had a ready-made pipeline of trained students as potential employees.
Last week state leaders attended the opening of the $14 million Georgia BioScience Training Center near Social Circle to train workers at the Baxalta pharmaceutical plant nearby.
Still, if Georgia doesn’t make strides as places like Houston and Nashville,companies with jobs to bring are more likely to bypass it.
“The competition is fierce for economic development, and without a skilled and educated workforce, the future will not be bright for any state that does not do that,” said Ron Jackson, former commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia. “Staying the course will always be the challenge.”
Alejandra Lopez is 18 and already has a college degree. Juan Hernandez, 19, is starting a welding career.
Lopez earned her associate’s degree this spring while getting her high school diploma. For Hernandez, a skills training program in his high school and late-evening classes at a technical college were key.
Those are just two examples of ways Houston schools responded to a gap between what’s taught in classrooms and the skills needed for good jobs — the same gap that has raised alarm among business, civic and school leaders in Georgia, where some employers say their jobs are going to people from other states.
Houston, nationally recognized for some of its education initiatives, is ahead of metro Atlanta schools in areas like starting teacher salaries, job training and graduation rate increases. As part of a a year-long series called Atlanta Forward examining major issues facing our region, such as improving public education to help residents hold good jobs, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently visited Houston to look at what could be learned.
In 2013, Houston became the first two-time winner of the Broad Prize, a $1 million award given most years to a school district that makes strides helping students improve academically who traditionally underperform. Gwinnett County was the second school district to win the prize twice, sharing it last year with the Orange County, Fla., school system.
Nancy Que, director of the Broad prize, said of Houston, “They are trying new things. That’s something you don’t see in all districts.”
Some other ‘new things’ Houston is trying include:
• A summer externship program where it pays teachers to spend a week working at a company. The district wants teachers to learn what businesses are doing and share with students so they have the skills companies need.
• Cooperation between the city’s Lone Star College system of community and career colleges with one key segment of the Houston economy, the energy and gas industries, to train workers for oil and gas jobs. The system built an energy and manufacturing institute a few years ago to provide high-tech workforce.
• An arrangement by three Houston community college systems that allows students to move seamlessly through the systems, completing more classes and programs. There is an emphasis on programs for unemployed and underemployed young adults who can complete them in months instead of years, as well as intensive advising and support to help students with the “soft skills” needed to interact with people.
• Career and technical education programs that will soon be the focal point of every Houston high school (an idea being tested in a handful of metro Atlanta schools).
Houston is also the beneficiary of investment by JPMorgan Chase, which is spending $250 million over five years in a national initiative to help close the gap between what employers need from employees and the skills workers graduate with. The company’s investment is funding a series of skills reports in national and international metropolitan areas like Houston. This data is helping cities prepare people for careers in high-demand, middle-skill jobs, those such as welder that require some education or training beyond high school but not not a four-year college degree.
“Employers were saying, ‘I can’t find the talent I need,’ ” Gina Luna, an executive with JP Morgan Chase, said in describing what motivated Houston’s efforts. “This is demand driven.”
Luna is also a co-chairwoman of UpSkill Houston, which Houston’s business community started. Houston claims it is the first business-led initiative designed to get more residents educated, trained and into the workforce. It grew out of Houston’s chamber of commerce and economic development organization, the Greater Houston Partnership, with the idea that a business-led initiative can get results faster than a government-focused plan.
Upskill, launched in 2013, convened 79 leaders from business, education and social service to collaborate on a solution to the metro area’s employment problems. Its work so far has been mainly assessing employers’ needs and educators’ resources and getting those groups on the same page.
“We want to change the paradigm so that people know a four-year degree is not the only path to success,” Luna said.
“We just can’t offer the same programs we offered 40 years ago. We have to update to meet the demands of the workplace,” said Melissa Gonzalez, Lone Star’s vice chancellor of workforce and economic development. “Putting up fliers and sending out emails is not enough. Emphasis now has to be on workforce programs because there are jobs at the end. There is a real opportunity for families. It can change the scope of the future.”
Lee Mashburn, assistant principal of Houston’s Scarborough High School, said of the public school district’s approach, which includes offering at least 15 Advanced Placement courses at all high schools: “That’s what the industry is looking for. They’re looking for people who are global graduates.”
More than 300 Houston students received associate degrees and diplomas this spring, officials here said. In Georgia, 14 students received dual degrees from the Move On When Ready program, which Georgia lawmakers streamlined earlier this year. It had been focused on certificates in various professions that range from welding to bioscience technicians.
While Atlanta has made modest improvement in some areas, its school district lags behind comparable school districts in how low-income students fare on statewide assessments, said Que, the Broad Prize director.
Houston public school leaders realized a few years ago they needed to step it up. Statistics show the district, on average, is well behind Texas and the nation in some academic categories, such as mean SAT scores. Houston, though, has seen its graduation rate rise by 13 percentage points in a recent five-year stretch, according to Broad Foundation data. Clayton County had the largest percentage point increase, 8.8, of metro Atlanta’s largest school districts since the 2010-11 school year, when Georgia adopted revised federal guidelines to measure graduation rates.
Skills gap recognized
Atlanta and Houston have some similarities besides sauna-like summers and interstate highways clogged with traffic.
Non-whites make up the majority of students in each region and most of them are eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches, a bellwether of poverty.
Houston’s unemployment rate is 1 percentage point below the national average, but its poverty level has increased, suggesting more people are working, but not enough to lift their families out of poverty. A similar trend is occurring in Georgia.
And the skills gap exists in both. In 2013, an estimated 855,000 Houstonians 25 and older did not have the minimum credentials for middle-skill jobs, the largest sector of the local economy, according to a report by JP Morgan Chase. Houston has about 1.4 million middle-skill jobs.
One response was reshaping its career and technical education pathways program. “We had a huge disparity between the labor market and the CTE program,” said director Michael Webster, a former teacher who left the district for the private sector and returned three years ago.
Houston cut back agriculture, cosmetology, fashion design and marketing about three years ago, It added construction-related classes, noting labor market studies showed the need for 4,500 pipefitters and salaries for those jobs as much as $100,000.
“If there are not a lot of jobs (in some of those professions we’re teaching), then we are setting up ourselves for failure,” Webster said.
Adapting has paid off for Houston and its students.
When Lone Star realized more of its students wanted to enroll in the welding program but couldn’t because they worked other jobs during the day, the system created a late-night class that begins at 10 p.m. and ends at 1 a.m. Lone Star’s placement rate for students completing its applied technology programs — including welding — is between 85 and 87 percent, according to school officials.
The evening start time and flexibility of classes at Lone Star were key for Juan Hernandez. Hernandez, 19, a Mexican native who has lived in Houston since age four, began welding while enrolled in a skills training program in his high school. He found the creative, hands-on aspects of the occupation rewarding.
“I knew then I wanted to do this for the rest of my life,” he said.
Many businesses in Houston are working closely with the school system and colleges. Lopez, a soft-spoken young woman who earned her associate degree while still in high school, had a summer internship at a company where she learned computer programs used by engineers and put into practice some of what she learned in the dual-credit program.
“Most of the things they do, I know how to do,” said Lopez, who’s attending Texas A&M this school year.
Marilyn Mendoza, 17, a senior at Houston’s Jane Long Academy, is in the pharmacy technician program under the schools’ health sciences pathway. She wants to be a pediatrician or a nurse. A petite young woman with long, dark hair, Mendoza spent her summer vacation at a Walgreens near her home in southwest Houston to learn more about medicine by working behind the prescription counter.
In some ways, the internship was a respite. This school year, she’ll take high school classes in the morning, college classes in the afternoon to get her associate degree and high school diploma. Oh, Mendoza plans to work at Walgreens when she can.
Only one-third of the students who started with her in the dual-credit program are still in it, Mendoza said.
“At one point, I felt like I wasn’t going to make it,” she said. “I had a goal to make it.”
The Houston district is larger than any Georgia school district, which gives it some advantages. Its $2.2 billion budget is about $400 million more than Gwinnett’s, Georgia’s largest school district. The average starting teacher salary in Houston is about $45,000, more than any of metro Atlanta’s largest districts.
Georgia businesses are beginning to get more involved. The state education department is holding a dozen meetings around the state this fall to give business and civic leaders a chance to learn more about the department’s career, technical and agricultural education division, and to develop new partnerships with their school districts.
The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce launched a workforce council over the summer made up of business leaders, school and college systems, GED providers and the state labor department. Shan Cooper, Lockheed Martin vice president and general manager and co-chairman of the chambers’ workforce council, describes its work as “mission critical” for the state and region.
Lockheed has sometimes had to look outside Georgia for workers, a problem shared by some other businesses on the council, Cooper said. Now, having all parties at the table should help solve some of those problems. “There are some good things going on in the region and state around workfroce development,” Cooper said. “We’ve just got to leverage it well and we’ve not always done that.”
The long-term results of such efforts will be vital. Atlanta region’s claim to being the “capital of the New South” could be threatened if improvements aren’t made.
“Atlanta is one of the big Sunbelt cities of the last 20, 30 years that has really been eclipsed by others,” Joel Kotkin, an urban expert at Chapman University in California, previously told reporters at the AJC. “…When you look at places in America where things are happening, Atlanta is not high on that list.”
More from our Atlanta Forward series:
» Denver hits mile-high regionalism
» Interactive: How metro Atlanta measures up
» Metro Atlanta struggling to regain momentum
» Despite ills, CEOs see upside in metro Atlanta