With close to a quarter of all jobs in the region connected to the manufacturing sector, Georgia Northwestern Technical College President Pete McDonald said a traditional four-year degree is no longer automatically the best choice for young people preparing to enter the workforce.
“The investment that took in the past, in relative terms, was reasonable — but now some of the tracks are very expensive, and there’s no real payback to that educational route,” he said.
“You’ve got people graduating from college in extreme debt, and they take 20 or 30 years trying to pay their student loans back. I’m just saying there are needs in the workplace that don’t match those degree tracks,” he added.
McDonald said a representative from Toyo Tire in Bartow County once told him the plant’s top five needs are in “industrial maintenance, industrial maintenance, industrial maintenance and, well, you get the idea.”
The GNTC president said he doesn’t believe a lot of parents understand what’s happening in the workplace today, particularly parents who may not have gone to college themselves.
“In their mindset they want their child to go to college, which is great, but they need to be smart about the career pathway that they choose,” he said.
McDonald said that, while every company doesn’t need a thousand skilled technicians, many do need 20 or 30 people trained to maintain the sophisticated equipment and control systems at the heart of modern factories.
“I encourage students and families to learn about the workplace, learn about what skills are needed and can provide a good quality
of life for an individual with a reasonable amount of investment,” he said.
Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce President Al Hodge said industry leaders have expressed the need for employees with the skill sets to handle advanced manufacturing technologies.
“That would include robotics, advanced maintenance and mechatronics,” Hodge said. “We are also seeing a potent, positive combination of a technical college degree along with a liberal arts degree.”
Hodge said there are people in the workforce who have gone to a technical college and realized they could progress on the job with a four-year degree.
“On the other hand, we have folks who have worked and realized they could be more effective with a skill set that they could go to a technical college and receive,” he said.
Scott Sauer, communications manager for International Paper’s mill in western Floyd County, said the company — like other manufacturers — will experience heavy attrition over the next 12 to 14 years as baby boomers retire.
“We’ve been planning for this and have taken steps to address the issue. As an example, 32 percent of engineers hired into IP today to work at our U.S. mills are now females,” Sauer said.
Going back to 2011, women represented 16 percent of the engineering recruits. In 2012 it was 31 percent, and last year women engineers made up 34 percent of IP’s recruits.
Further evidence of the advance of women into technical and engineering jobs can be found at Georgia Power’s Plant Hammond where Cassandra Wheeler is the third female plant manager in the last decade.
The industrial supply company Grainger also is trying to prepare its workforce of the future.
Back in April, GNTC was invited to participate in the company’s Tools for Tomorrow scholarship program for community college and technical college students in industrial and public safety programs.
“The education and support these institutions provide empower students, which is vital in developing the skills and talent that will keep our infrastructure and communities strong,” said Lois Rouder, senior manager with Grainger.
Beginning with the 2014-2015 school year, a number of GNTC students will be eligible for scholarships of up to $2,000, with some of the grants reserved for former military personnel.
In recent years, the technical college has expanded to include campuses in Floyd, Walker, Whitfield/Murray, Gordon and Polk counties. Another facility will open soon in Catoosa County.
However, McDonald said GNTC cannot produce enough skilled electrical workers, control system operators and the like to meet the demand in the region.
A fast-track program was instituted at the Whitfield/Murray campus in Dalton to try to meet some of the needs of the floor covering industry, which is enjoying a major resurgence after the recession that closed many plants.
The industry is retooling, using modern technologies that are not as labor-intensive as in the past and require completely new skill sets.
“We are trying to figure out a way to take people and, in a rapid way, prepare them for those skills,” McDonald said. “Maybe not to meet 100 percent of that need, but if we can get 50 to 60 percent of it in a rapid way they’ll be better off.”
McDonald said a similar scenario exists in the medical industry, which is a major factor in Rome’s economy.
“The technology in the medical field is changing so rapidly that you’ve got to have technically trained people to be able to work in those fields,” he said.
McDonald said good technicians also must have good oral and written communication skills.
“They’ve got to be able to orally discuss things, go through a problem-solving process,” McDonald said. “Being able to communicate that as part of a team working to solve a problem and prevent issues of that nature from arising in the future is also important.”