Rural Georgia has benefited disproportionately from a wave of unprecedented economic development across the state during the last four years, with more than three-quarters of projects going outside metro Atlanta.
But there’s a downside to the progress: With a statewide unemployment rate of just 3.2%, there aren’t enough workers to fill the 400,000 job openings expected in the next decade.
The small city of Thomasville in Southwest Georgia is doing something about it with an initiative launched in 2019 aimed at a lack of preparedness among students for holding good-paying jobs in today’s workforce and at barriers to work including inadequate child-care options, lack of transportation and a shortage of affordable housing.
The key to Imagine Thomasville has been local political, business, and education leaders connecting with each other rather than staying inside their respective silos, Shelley Zorn, president and CEO of the Thomasville Payroll Development Authority, said July 26 during the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s annual Rural Prosperity Summit on the campus of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.
“What I like about this is we weren’t creating a lot of new programs and services,” Zorn said. “It just helped being in a room and knowing what’s out there. … A lot of good work is going on because we coordinate with each other.”
Zorn’s organization partnered with the Thomasville & Thomas County Chamber of Commerce to start Imagine Thomasville four years ago only to be sidetracked by the pandemic. The work got underway in earnest in 2021 when the organizations hired the Atlanta-based Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education (GPEE) – a Georgia Chamber affiliate – to conduct a year-long survey of hundreds of local residents.
The results revealed several challenges including the need for better communication among local leaders. Lauren Radford, a local health-insurance broker, was put to work at the head of a committee tasked with improving those relationships.
Radford brought together a diverse cross-section of Thomasville residents in terms of race and socioeconomic status to talk in honest terms about inequality.
“These are uncomfortable conversations, but it’s necessary,” she said. “We are having to establish trust that never existed before. We’re getting there.”
To get at the workforce preparedness issue, it was necessary to focus on education, and the challenges are daunting.
Forty percent of Georgians 25 and older have no credential or degree beyond high school, said Dana Rickman, the GPEE’s president. However, 65% of Georgia adults will need some form of post-secondary credential “of value” by 2033, Rickman said.
Closing that gap between workforce needs and educational achievement will be difficult given the shortage of qualified students.
Currently, of every 100 Georgians who enter high school, 81 will graduate on time, 62 will enroll in some form of higher education within two years of graduating high school, while only 43 will make it through the second year of post-secondary education.
“We’re losing 57% of the pipeline,” Rickman said.
Rickman said early learning is a key to improving those discouraging numbers. But in Thomasville, there’s a shortage of early-care and early-learning opportunities for kids.
Zorn said a survey reported 2,750 children up to the age of 5 in Thomasville but only 1,333 child care spots.
Lisa Billups, executive director of the Thomasville Community Resource Center, is tackling the child-care shortage with a program that involves teaching 2- and 3-year-olds to read at home. Center employees visit families for 30 minutes twice a week for 26 weeks bringing books.
The program started with five families but has grown its capacity to 40. However, 60 families have expressed interest, Billups said.
“We can’t keep up with the demand,” she said.
Billups said one side benefit to the program is it gives the center an opportunity to encourage parents to sign up for GED classes so they can earn at least a high school diploma.
“I believe education is the great equalizer,” she said.
Thomasville City Councilman Mike Chastain said the city is taking on two barriers to employment. A newly founded nonprofit is focusing on housing by providing land and funding, he said.
The city also recently landed a grant of $175,000 to pursue a variety of transportation improvements, Chastain said.
“Government is not the solution, but there are things we can do to have a positive impact,” he said.
Georgia Chamber President and CEO Chris Clark said the good news is not as many young people are leaving rural Georgia for jobs in urban areas as in past years. Members of Generation Z, the latest cohort to begin joining the workforce, tend to be more risk averse than their Millennial elders and, thus, less likely to leave home, he said.
“There’s a light out there,” Clark said. “These workforce issues will be better.”
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