Georgia Chamber of Commerce president says state will have to focus on workforce

·4 min read

Sep. 8—Georgia's economy has been faring well during the last three years but businesses are starting to see some challenges that will only grow during the next decade, according to Georgia Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chris Clark.

Clark spoke to about 45 business and education leaders Thursday morning at Dalton State College's James Brown Center. He said those challenges aren't insurmountable but they will require businesses and governments to adapt to a changing workforce.

Clark noted Georgia has been named the best state to do business in for eight straight years by Area Development magazine. Businesses have invested $42.9 billion in the state since 2019, creating close to 120,000 jobs, easily making up for jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

Clark added that 77% of that investment has occurred outside of metro Atlanta.

But companies in Georgia, and across the country, are finding it harder to find workers, especially the sort of high-skilled workers they increasingly need.

There are 11 million job openings in the U.S., Clark said, but 3.9 million fewer workers now than in 2019.

Baby Boomers, those born in 1964 or earlier, are retiring. Many people, especially women, left the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic to care for children or other loved ones and haven't returned.

The labor force participation rate, the percentage of people 16 and older who are working or actively looking for a job, has declined from about 70% in 1998 to about 62% today. That means, Clark said, that developing, attracting and maintaining a skilled workforce will be an increasing problem for businesses and for the state.

He said that calls for efforts on a number of fronts. Employers must provide meaningful work and a clear path for career advancement. They must also be able to provide flexibility where possible. He said that by 2030 up to 70% of the workforce may be engaged in "hydrid work" where they do some of their work from home or outside the regular workplace.

Clark said local governments must clear out rules that make housing development more expensive and develop policies that allow workers to be able to obtain affordable and quality housing.

And he said local schools, the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia must make sure they are providing students with the skills that employers demand.

Marilyn Helms, dean of Dalton State College's C. Lamar and Ann Wright School of Business, was one of those attending the presentation, and she said afterward Dalton State is doing many of the things Clark recommends.

"The best thing we are doing is our business advisory council," she said. "These are groups of 25 or 30 men and women who meet with us, tell us what their needs are and look at our curriculum, so that we make sure we are matching what they need. Are we covering cybersecurity, supply chain issues, logistics issues? One of the things they want to see is more advanced knowledge of spreadsheets, Excel, pivot tables, things like that. We learn from them and we adjust our curriculum accordingly, so our students are prepared to work and to stay in this area."

Clark said internships, apprenticeships and job-based learning are also becoming increasingly important. He said employers and schools have to do a better job of letting young people know there are good jobs in the skilled trades and preparing them for those jobs.

Dalton Public Schools Superintendent Tim Scott, who also attended the meeting, said afterward the school system is trying to meet those needs.

"First of all, we have The Dalton Academy, a brand new school in its second year that has an entrepreneurship program and a partnership with (education group) 3DE for work-based learning," he said. "We have a great relationship with the (Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce) and Believe Greater Dalton and local industry. We are constantly looking to improve the opportunities for our young people, whether they choose to go on to college or to enter the workforce after graduating high school."

Clark said there has been a trend among young workers to seek out "cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami" with vibrant social life. But he said he's now seeing those people getting older and looking to start families.

"That presents a great opportunity for cities such as Dalton, with good school systems, a vibrant downtown and proximity to Atlanta and Chattanooga," he said. "I think Dalton is well poised to attract those sort of workers."