When she started college, Skyler Huggett struggled to make a 9 a.m. class.
But more recently, her studies (literally) lit a fire that had her prepared to get to work before the doors opened — even at 7 in the morning.
During a speech at the Georgia Manufacturers Appreciation Awards luncheon April 27, Ms. Huggett said she took a well-worn path when she chose college right after high school graduation. But something didn’t quite fit.
“I kind of enjoyed the social aspects of college a little too much, so my grades kind of started to suffer, but I’m not a quitter,” she said. She eventually finished with an associates degree from Georgia Highlands College and went out into the world.
A few years later, she found a deeper calling toward technical education in a roundabout way — watching a documentary showing a woman welding an art sculpture.
“”I realized right then and there, I can do that — let me try it.”
She traveled down to Savannah Technical College and enrolled in a short program to test it out. Mr. Burns, an aptly named an instructor, told her that if she liked fire, she’d love welding. He was right.
“Once I got into that cutting class, I put my hand on that torch, I felt the heat on my face, and these sparks really started to fly. There was this passion that was ignited within me,” she said. “My love for welding really made me a more dedicated student.”
That’s reflected in her accomplishments. The recent grad won the 2017 Georgia Occupational Award of Leadership, which goes to outstanding students from the Technical College System of Georgia.
She exemplifies the type of student economic development and education leaders say they need to identify early on to address with a yawning skills gap faced by Georgia manufacturers.
Skilled technical labor is often lacking, especially in rural areas, limiting some communities’ ability to attract foreign companies and manufacturing investment.
Efforts to fix the problem and to prepare manufacturers for the next generation of production — driven by automation and cloud-connected, data-driven systems — discussed at the awards luncheon, part of the annual Georgia Manufacturers Appreciation Week celebrations.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, for instance, said one way the state has been handling the issue is through the Quick Start program, which assures development prospects that they’ll start with a readily trained workforce when they hit the ground in Georgia.
“I can’t tell you how much of an advantage that gives us in attracting companies,” Mr. Deal said in his remarks.
Other grassroots fixes are emerging as well. Grenzebach, a German production equipment and robotics manufacturer with a Newnan facility, addressed the issue in accepting the award for small manufacturer of the year.
The company is one of a few piloting the German apprenticeship model to Georgia through the Georgia Consortium for Advanced Technical Training, or GA-CATT, where high-schoolers blend technical college classes with on-the-job training.
“I’m a firm believer that this is a game-changer in the skills gap that were are experiencing in manufacturing,” said Martin Pleyer, Grenzebach’s COO.
Great Dane Trailers, which makes refrigerated trailers trucking lines use to transport frozen and perishable goods all across North America, needed a lot of technically skilled labor when it set up its state-of-the-art facility in Statesboro, Ga., in 2012, said Brian Sage, executive vice president of manufacturing.
The new facility for the Chicago-owned, Savannah-founded company hired 400-plus people, including some who could work with robotic welding systems and automated production and material-handling processes. Many were trained by Ogeechee Technical College, which brought in more than 4,000 applicants.
“They have been a true partner and continue to help us to this day,” Mr. Sage said.
Other local leaders have helped with manufacturing programs that keep youth interested in the field, he said.
“By the way, Skyler, we are in Savannah and we do a lot of welding,” Mr. Sage said, alluding earlier jokes about the line forming to hire Ms. Huggett, the GOAL award-winning welder.
Founded as Savannah Steel Products, Great Dane’s commitment to innovation goes back to when it invented the first refrigeration systems for long-haul journeys — fans blowing over ice.
Now, the company is moving 200 employees into a new technology center in Savannah that will house product engineering, R&D labs, testing facilities, sales and marketing teams, accounting, manufacturing leadership.
Mr. Sage also praised the collaboration among Georgia’s business, government and educational communities, a key ingredient to its manufacturing success also called out by the large manufacturer of the year, King’s Hawaiian.
Staffers from the dinner roll maker’s Hall County plant, dressed in Hawaiian shirts, filled up much of the ballroom’s front section at the Georgia International Convention Center.
Mark Taira, the CEO, said Georgia embodies the “Aloha” spirit the Hawaii-founded company aims to exude.
“It’s all about being that gracious host. It’s also about sharing, caring, thinking of others, and most importantly, kindness,” Mr. Taira said. “If Georgia had a name other than the Peach State, it would be ‘collaboration.’”
If the state’s educational and business leaders can live up to that moniker, they could gain more workers like Ms. Huggett who find their niche in the skilled trades rather than liberal arts.
“After years of searching for a purpose, I found welding and I love what I do. My future, guys, is on fire; it really is,” Ms. Huggett said. “I know now that I have a career, not just a job. One that I can be proud of. One to support myself with. One to support my family with. One to chart my future. Thanks to technical education.”