The extent of Japan‘s ties to Georgia sometimes provides unexpected surprises. Such was the case at the “U.S.-Japan Dialogue” held earlier in September at the Georgia Institute of Technology‘s Academy of Medicine.
The seminar supported by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA focused on Georgia’s workforce and brought together panelists from the Kubota Manufacturing of America Corp., one of the state’s leading Japanese companies, and InComm, a rapidly growing payments company with offices in Atlanta and Columbus, as well as the president of Lanier Technical College, who is in the process of leading the efforts to construct a new main campus in Hall County.
Ambassador James P. Zumwalt, CEO of the Washington-based non-profit committed to strengthening U.S.-Japan relations through education, programs and research, represented Sasakawa. In his remarks, he praised these ties based on Georgia’s logistical strengths, its deepwater port in Savannah, and the benefits provided by the widening of the Panama Canal, which has lowered shipping costs.
Julie Chung, director of the Office of Japanese Affairs from the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. State Department, underscored the U.S. government’s support for workforce development.
But it was Japan’s consul general based in Atlanta, Takashi Shinozuka, who provided the surprise by acknowledging his former relationship with Mr. Zumwalt, who during his extensive diplomatic career had served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, when Japan suffered a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
At the time Mr. Shinozuka was vice grand master of ceremonies in the Imperial Household Agency, the office that coordinates the various duties of of the Japanese emperor and his family, and it was during this period that he met Mr. Zumwalt.
The personal re-encounter set the stage for emphasizing the human ties that have developed over the years as well as the economic and cultural ties between the state and Japan, which have been established since the recruiting efforts of former Govs. Jimmy Carter and George Busbee.
Aside from Georgia’s $1.36 billion in exports to Japan last year, and Japan’s extensive investments in new facilities in the state, there are 21 Japanese educational and educational organizations in Georgia, 10 Sister Cities between Georgia and Japan and 11 colleges and universities in Georgia that have Japan studies programs.
Mr. Shinozuka added that Japanese companies continue to invest in Georgia citing the recent $72 million investment by brake and brake pad maker Nisshinbo Automotive Manufacturing Inc. in Newton County that will create 100 jobs
Sasakawa USA chose Atlanta because of the close Japan-Georgia ties, but it also recognized that the state’s current economic growth is placing a strain on the demand for highly skilled, competent employees.
Ray Perren, president of Lanier Technical College, cited the state’s 3.8 percent unemployment rate, adding that in some areas it’s 2.5 percent. He added that Gov. Nathan Deal promised to make workforce preparedness a major objective of his administration.
Companies like Kubota, the tractor and heavy equipment maker, have responded, according to Phil Sutton, the company’s vice president and chief administrative officer here.
Mr. Sutton said that Kubota has doubled its operations in Georgia since opening new facilities in 2004 and has never laid off a full time employee in 30 years. It also has supported dual enrollment programs at local high schools.
“We want to develop the workforce as part of the community,” he added, and the company has given a $1 million grant to the Lanier Technical Foundation providing support for high school and technical college students.
The programs are in fields such as industrial systems technology and machine tool technology and in developing fields such as wireless engineering technology.
Despite the efforts of Kubota and other companies that are supporting workforce enhancement programs related problems continue to hinder Georgia companies.
Dr. Perren said that while many of the workers enrolled in the enhancement programs only about 2 percent are preparing for manufacturing related jobs, while 30 percent of the demand for jobs are manufacturing related.
Michael Phillips, senior director of global talent acquisition at InComm, said that his company has grown successfully in Georgia with local talent and currently operates in 30 countries with its Tokyo office being its largest overseas base.
Nevertheless, he cautioned that “Americans don’t really know what they will be doing until they are 27 years old.” Their attitude, even while in college, is, he added, “I’ll graduate and then I’ll figure it out.”
Dr. Perren confirmed this assertion. “They don’t know what they don’t know. Ninety eight percent at the end of the day may realize that they may be on the wrong path.”
He added, however, that he favored the Japanese model for workforce development of “continuous improvement” as opposed to competing models of developing “master craftsmen.”
Mr. Phillips also said that employees, especially in global companies such as his own, need to be exposed to working in diversified settings. InComm has gone so far as to develop a Leadership Academy to help form attitudes that succeed in such environments.
When the panelists were asked what advice would they give the state’s new governor following the election this fall, Mr. Phillips said that he would encourage the development of new talent. “Start the process early,” he said. “Build relationships with talent to get ahead of the curve and keep bringing in more business here. Keep that robust economic growth.”
In addition to Sasakawa, the dialogue was supported by the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for International Business Education and Research, the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the Japan-America Society of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia.
James Hoadley, associate director of the Center for International Business Education and Research (GT CIBER), served as panel moderator.