If you’re a teenage student in Carrollton, Ga., there is a factory job waiting for you. Just a few catches: you have to be struggling financially, at risk for failing out of school and prone to missing class.
If all this sounds counterintuitive, that’s because Southwire Co., the copper cable giant providing the jobs, believes drastic measures should be taken to help “forgotten” students poised to fall irretrievably over the edge of the current educational system.
Launched seven years ago, Southwire’s 12 for Life program aims to stem rising high-school dropout rate in its community, while meeting the company’s workforce needs both now and into the future.
The program allows students to work for at least $9.50 per hour in a factory bought and outfitted expressly for this purpose at an investment of $4 million. In addition to earning credit toward graduation, the students are mentored by supervisors while making real products that contribute to the company’s bottom line.
The 12 for Life factory brings in about $2 million per year in revenue while building the pool of skilled labor in the community for the long-term.
It’s a perfect example of “social value,” a concept proposing that companies’ philanthropic efforts can be more sustainable and impactful when integrated with their bottom lines, according to President and CEO Stu Thorn, who oversaw implementation of 12 for Life.
“Everybody wins. There’re no losers to this,” Mr. Thorn said while describing the program at the Next Generation Manufacturing conference held Sept. 16 at the Georgia Tech Research Institute.
More than 850 students have graduated high school through the program, with 40 percent going on to post-secondary education and 100 already working for Southwire. One is even a supervisor and introduced Mr. Thorn last month when he received “copper man of the year” award at a swanky industry affair in New York. She “completely upstaged” him with her smooth intro, while he stammered over his acceptance speech, he said.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Southwire last week and met with 10 students who had been through the program. Eight of them raised their hands when he asked how many were the first in their families to graduate high school. These students, some of whom are actually parents or are functioning as such to their younger siblings, simply need a chance, Mr. Thorn said.
“Their DNA is as good as anybody’s in this room,” he said.
Mr. Duncan has since begun citing Southwire’s program as a model for tackling twin threats long-term U.S. growth: rising dropout rates and a relative dearth of technically skilled workers.
Mr. Thorn believes the program’s power is in the fact that it benefits the company, community and, most importantly, the students, making scalability a “real possibility,” he said.
The program will soon get its chance in Georgia, where Mr. Thorn has been asked to chair the Great Promise Parnership, a nonprofit tasked with inspiring other companies to replicate Southwire’s model in their communities. Caterpillar Inc., Carroll E.M.C. and others have already expressed interest.
Mr. Thorn gave out his email address to attendees of the manufacturing conference and offered to help them set things up. The crowd responded enthusiastically with a variety of questions and multiple rounds of applause. http://gppartnership.org/
But that’s not the only thing Southwire is tackling the state’s education needs. The company helped the University of West Georgia’s Richards College of Business come up with a degree program focused around its core values. Students get an MBA in four years instead of five or six. Southwire also spent $1 million creating a Center of Manufacturing Excellence at West Georgia Technical College and another $1 million to create an engineering academy for high-performing high schoolers. Last year, Southwire also gave away 15,000 packets of school supplies to elementary students.
Mr. Thorn was introduced by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who said Georgia needs to get real about addressing the skills gap that exists for American manufacturers today. Invoking Singapore, which has put in place specialized training, Mr. Cagle said Georgia needs to realize that a “one-size-fits-all model” in K-12 education no longer works if it is to invest in its future.
“I believe that education drives the economy, not the economy driving education,” he said.
Also, American society being “obsessed with college” shortchanges students, who often don’t know that scarcity in technical fields often means that qualified workers can often make more after high school graduation than four-year liberal arts majors, without dealing with the ever-rising cost of college.
“All of us are doing a terrible job marketing that career path,” Mr. Thorn said.