It’s been one year since the Georgia Chamber resumed safe, in-person events. After COVID riddled our very existence with uncertainty, we were forced to temporarily dispense with those gatherings to preserve the health and well-being of all Georgians.

So, it was good to be out last week, traveling back to my roots in Fitzgerald, as well as Americus and Valdosta, to convene with business and community leaders about the need to reimagine a new Georgia economy together. But no matter where I am, whether here in Atlanta, or back home in South Georgia, I have the same conversation. Talent is scarce and employers are struggling to fill jobs, and this is jeopardizing our economic recovery.

Despite COVID and a global, pandemic-induced recession, the state of Georgia created an even greater demand for talent this past year, only serving to prove its ongoing reputation for being the best state in the which to do business.

In fact, our state has been the recipient of unprecedented growth in jobs and capital investment over the last fiscal year; the numbers are staggering. Just this summer, Governor Kemp’s office announced 379 project locations, $10 billion in capital investment and more than 33,000 new jobs. What’s more is that 77% of this growth landed in the rural regions of our state. Translated, rural Georgia now has more than 25,000 jobs to fill. A good problem to have when you aren’t experiencing a labor shortage crisis. To add, we must remember that rural areas of both Georgia and the U.S. were still struggling, pre-pandemic, having lost many jobs to manufacturing and other related industries, and fueling the very activity that the Georgia Department of Economic Development has so successfully addressed.

So, now it’s our turn as business leaders to step up, support the State’s recruitment efforts and answer the call for talent.

Of course, our rural communities have been working on this for years. They’ve developed innovative approaches to attract young people back to their communities by improving downtowns and increasing amenities. They are changing zoning laws to improve workforce housing, hosting “homecomings” in major cities to remind former residents about the opportunities that exist and even offering free land to families relocating back home.

Our rural universities and technical colleges are offering innovative programming and credentialing and communities are rolling out K-12 entrepreneur programs with impressive results.

We will explore these and other solutions at our upcoming American Rural Prosperity Summit in Athens, Georgia, on October 4-6, 2021. Last year, at this event, we learned that rural communities must drive their own narrative, telling their story about what makes them unique. They are embracing racial equality and inclusion strategies with intention and purpose, thinking regionally, and focusing on connectivity to support their need for talent development, job growth and economic health.

This year, we will look at how COVID distressed much of the repair work being done from the 2008 recession and identify even broader-based solutions that can deliver access to close the skills gap we are experiencing. In Georgia, more than 400,000 job postings were available in Q2 of this year, yet only a little over 200,000 Georgians were listed on the unemployment line. We must find ways to match jobs with skill sets and upskill where possible to deliver a readied talent base for these employers.

The war for talent is real. The struggle is everywhere. And those rural communities that were already facing setbacks and challenges pre-COVID, need an even more accelerated talent transformation, today.

No longer can we rely on the traditional means of education and training to deliver tomorrow’s workforce. We must act now, meeting together to discuss common challenges and finding innovative partnerships and means to leverage resources that can stretch from urban to rural and strengthen us as a state and a nation.

Chris Clark is president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. Santiago Marquez is CEO of The Latin American Association.

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