Gov. Nathan Deal was adamant that the Georgia workforce is unrivaled; after all, he was riding in on a wave of optimism, having come in late from a new $22.5 million factory announcement in Bainbridge.
But in a keynote speech the Georgia Manufacturing Appreciation Week awards luncheon Thursday, the governor didn’t shy away from a real problem facing the state’s future ability to win major investments: a continued dearth of qualified applicants for large, high-tech factories.
Georgia Quick Start, which sponsored the lunch, was repeatedly celebrated for its customized training programs that help companies like award winner Pratt & Whitney create the workforce they need, whether by running dual-enrollment programs with high schools, customizing simulation environments or creating video training manuals.
But Mr. Deal said he was recently talking to one of the state’s largest manufacturers and learned that when trying to fill a thousand jobs, the company had found up to 30 percent of applicants couldn’t pass a routine drug test.
“That is an alarming statistic and it is one that we cannot continue to ignore,” Mr. Deal said, noting that while the opioid crisis itself is serious, this challenge must also be addressed.
“I’m telling you that I will make my focus on trying to do something about that, and I hope that whoever follows me will continue to do the same,” Mr. Deal said, addressing about 1,000 luncheon attendees for the last time.
Another headwind is an outmoded perception of what manufacturing entails in the 21st century when smokestacks in many cases are traded for robotics, said Matt Arthur, commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia.
“Many people still think of manufacturing as old-fashioned factory work, but we are slowly putting that image behind us,” Mr. Arthur said.
The system had more than 9,600 students enrolled in manufacturing programs around the state last year, doling out 8,000 credentials that helped place them as workers into factory environments.
But it’s new dual-enrollment programs targeting high schoolers that are helping young people get connected earlier, cutting down on the career gap that often occurs between graduation and 26 years old, Mr. Arthur said. Some 26,000 Georgia high-schoolers are now earning TCSG college credit before graduation.
TCSG had more than 134,000 students around the state in 2017, with 27,000 working on training programs organized with Quick Start. Nearly 90 percent of those will go on to job placements, an important figure given the major threat that the lack of skilled labor presents for the U.S. economy.
“If students come to us wanting go learn manufacturing, they’re going to get a job,” Mr. Arthur said.
Pratt & Whitney, a United Technologies subsidiary with a major jet engine plant in Columbus, Ga., is living proof that it works.
According to Columbus Engine Center general manager Tom Bode, it took a little convincing for company higher-ups to agree to let 17-year-olds wield wrenches around massive jet engines — but nine years since it started the program with Columbus Technical College and the Muscogee and Harris County school districts, the company has hired 60-plus technicians who started at the plant while in high school.
Even amid hurdles, the state has managed to build its reputation as a manufacturing hub, and it continues to rank No. 1 in the country for business, acceding to Site Selection magazine.
That message is getting out beyond U.S. borders, said Pat Wilson, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, upon introducing Mr. Deal.
They both had returned from southwest Georgia, where they celebrated the announcement of a new Brazilian-owned firearm factory that would create 300 jobs. The day before, they’d also been in Dublin, Ga., where Latvia’s Valmiera Glass announced a major expansion.
“I always love to celebrate manufacturing in rural Georgia. That’s my heart. It’s where I’m from,” Mr. Wilson said.
Mr. Wilson said Quick Start provides a “slam dunk” answer to that all-important question from prospects: Where am I going to find the right people?
In fiscal year 2018, Georgia has already seen 339 manufacturing projects accounting for $3.4 billion in investment and 11,300 jobs, Mr. Deal said. The sector employs 400,000 Georgians.
Among those were the companies that took home the Georgia Manufacturer of the Year awards.
- Pratt & Whitney won in the category of large manufacturer (500+ employees). The company in February 2017 announced a $386 million expansion creating 500 new jobs
- NIBCO, which makes pipe fittings and flow control products, at its Greensboro, Ga., plant, won in the category of medium manufacturer (150-500 employees)
- METCAM, a sheet metal fabricator in Forsyth County, won in the small category (up to 150 workers)
Georgia elementary, middle and high school students were also recognized with scholarships for their contribution to a design contest that illustrates how important manufacturing is for their communities.
Learn more at Georgia Manufacturing Appreciation Week.
See Global Atlanta’s coverage of last year’s event here.