Habersham County Board of Education members Russ Nelson, Rick Williams, and Don Corbett met with human resource directors and toured manufacturing facilities this week to learn what the school system can do to better prepare students for jobs in industry.
Former Habersham County Chamber of Commerce Chairman Wade Rhodes organized the tour. “It’s just to get the school board to open their eyes to what the private sector is facing and what I think we need to do in our school system to help make kids more work ready.”
All the business leaders on the tour say they’re having a difficult time finding applicants with the work ethic and critical thinking skills necessary.
At Scovill Fasteners in Clarkesville, many of the folks that apply simply don’t know how to dress, act or think in a business environment according to Scovill CEO Craig Stoudt. “They’ve got to have some capability around the fundamentals, reasoning skills and communication skills. It seems simple but those aren’t the easiest things to find.”
Scovill Human Resources director Kim Brookshire agrees and says early education in the basics would help, “If we can teach them these soft skills and teach them respect and teach them how to dress and to be appropriate when they come to the job and I think it starts at a younger age.”
For GlobalTech in Cornelia, makers of candles and other wax products, the search for workers has uncovered a glaring lack of understanding of a basic work skill.
Co-founder and head of GlobalTech sales and marketing Rush Mauney says they give each applicant a “ruler test” because measuring wick size and flame height is a necessary skill in their industry. According to his records, many applicants fail because they cannot use a ruler.
While each of the four businesses on the tour have a particular story about a particular applicant that was particularly poorly prepared, they all say the overall number and quality of workers available for manufacturing in Habersham County is in noticeable decline.
“It’s very tough finding an adequate workforce for even the most basic job these days,” explains BOE member Russ Nelson. “A lot of the young kids that are coming out of high school, that are not going on to college or not going on to tech school, are lacking some of the basic life skills that they need in order to perform some of these jobs.”
Employers say the problem is partly due to the shift away from what we once called “Vocational Education” in Georgia. All students are now on a single curriculum designed specifically to deposit them into a 4-year college after high school. Wade Rhodes, who works with Junior Achievement students at South Habersham Middle School, says it is a noble goal but not one suitable or even attainable for all students.
There may also be a societal bias against industrial jobs according to TenCate Geosynthetics HR Manger Randall Adams, “I think a lot of it has to do with, and I’m guilty of it as a parent myself, for the last 20 years we’ve said ‘manufacturing’s not a good thing to go in to. You need to go to college.’ That’s the only answer, to go to college, and we’ve done these kids a disservice.”
TenCate creates cutting edge industrial fabrics used in everything from road building to airport runways. Their average hourly wage is more than $19 but company Vice President Ken Guest says a number of students (and their parents) just don’t realize that “skilled labor” jobs are a legitimate and profitable alternative to college. “I think it’s more of an emphasis both in the school and in the home that we just don’t recognize that those kinds of positions are out there anymore.”
Mauney agrees and says the system’s current focus on college prep is shortsighted. “I think everybody is trying to prepare people for the real high, more technical computer-based jobs like across the street (Ethicon) but there’s always going to be the other group.”
The Board of Education’s Don Corbett says the tours at Scovill in Clarkesville, GlobalTech, TenCate, and Habersham Metal Products in Cornelia made an impression and will lead to change. “We’ve talked about some technical career days for students who are interested in more of a technical path and working on a curriculum with the folks at the chamber and creating a curriculum to make students more workforce ready.”
Wade Rhodes, working with Chamber President Judy Taylor and the Archway Partnership from the University of Georgia, will be working out an action plan for local schools over the coming weeks and months.