The jobless rate in the metro Dalton area (Whitfield and Murray counties) stood at 12.7 percent in January, the latest month from which data are available. It has stood at 9 percent or higher since November 2008.
But with thousands of local people looking for jobs, area companies are still having trouble filling some jobs.
“It does sound odd. But this is something that always comes up in discussions with employers at both the local level and the state level,” said Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce President Brian Anderson.
Anderson says the positions that are most difficult to fill are skilled jobs, jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree but may require some specialized training or education.
“It’s things like mechatronics, mechanical jobs, electricians and electrical positions, chemical technicians, PLC (computerized equipment) programmers and operators. Those are just a few that I frequently hear companies say they are having trouble filling,” Anderson said.
He says most of the jobs pay better than typical factory jobs. Dalton area companies are working with local school systems and colleges to provide potential employees with the skills they need, but Anderson says those skills can’t be produced overnight.
Dalton High School is in the process of completely overhauling the “manufacturing” career path as part of a larger effort to bring its career and technical education programs more in line with what area employers now need.
Dalton High School Career/Technical Director Larry Murkerson says students will find a completely new program this fall. The program will even have a new name, to make it more attractive, though officials say they haven’t decided what that name will be.
“We’ve been revamping that program for a couple of years now. We’ve been listening to our industry partners. They’ve been telling us to concentrate on robotics and pneumatics and hydraulics. They tell us that that’s the skill sets they need, and they can’t find people to fill these jobs. They need people who can operate the control systems and troubleshoot the various assembly processes,” he said. “So we haven’t bought anything for the past couple of years unless it’s in those areas.”
Murkerson said DHS dropped welding a few years ago but based on conversations with industry officials it will probably bring that subject back next year.
“Our industry partners are saying they need people with basic metal fabrication skills,” he said. “We are probably also going to add Excel spreadsheets to our career tech program because our industry partners are telling us that’s the information system within the plant. We are working hard to make sure we listen to our industry partners.”
Last year, state School Superintendent John Barge unveiled a plan that, starting with next year’s freshmen, all Georgia high school students will have to complete a career pathway to graduate.
Barge unveiled the plan at the Whitfield County Career Academy, now the Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy, and said that requirement will help make school relevant and address the fact that not every student wants to pursue a four-year degree or could meet market demands by doing so.
The career academy received a $2.6 million federal grant last year to renovate its building, expand its services and create satellite courses at other area high schools.
The career academy will host the first-ever regional career fair for middle and high school students on May 4 at the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center. Representatives from a number of employers from across the region and the state will be there to talk to students about the jobs they have available and the skills and training they require.
Murray County received a similar $940,000 grant that it used to create the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Academy at the Mountain Creek Academy building in Eton. It offers career training in criminal justice and public safety.
Patty Hart, director of economic development for Georgia Northwestern Technical College, says GNTC officials work closely with local industry representatives in deciding what programs to offer.
“Electronics and industrial systems are two big areas that we have. We are also hearing from employers that they have a need for communications skills and management skills, especially for their front-line supervisors, so we have a management program,” she said. “We also work with companies to go into those companies and provide non-credit, short-term training for their employees.”
Hart says that, based on conversations with local employers, GNTC is looking at adding programs for chemical technicians and laboratory operators.
“We will offer some certificates they can get, and we will also offer a two-year program,” she said. “We hope to start that next year, but we don’t have any official word yet. We believe there’s a big demand. We have several chemical manufacturers here, and most of the carpet manufacturers and many other local manufacturers have a chemical division, and they need people with those skills.”
Like Dalton High, GNTC is looking at adding more welding courses.
“Welding now is different from what people who took it years ago might remember. A lot of times now it’s automated and requires training in robotics,” she said.
DSC changing also
Dalton State College has also revamped some of its programs at the prompting of local industry representatives.
Three years ago, DSC added a bachelor of science program in chemistry to help local floorcovering firms, chemical companies and other manufacturers find the chemists they need. The program graduated its first majors last year, and DSC started the current school year with 45 declared chemistry majors. In addition, many students take chemistry courses to satisfy science requirements for other majors. The program is currently at capacity because of limited laboratory space.
Ringgold resident Stacey Travis, a senior chemistry major, had returned to college three years ago after being out of school for several years.
“I liked chemistry when I was in high school, and when I came back to school I started taking classes and realized I was good at it and I liked it,” she said.
She says she plans to attend graduate school and go into soil and water science after graduating this year.
DSC’s School of Business has also made several changes due to advice from the local business community.
“In 2007 we began offering a (bachelor of business administration) degree in accounting, and we currently have more than 200 students in that program,” said Donna Mayo, dean of the business school. “We recently added a logistics course which focuses on distribution and transportation, and the course is a requirement for all students majoring in marketing.”
The school has also made other changes that permeate its courses.
“I have heard from business community leaders that today’s college graduates seem to be able to gather information and analyze that information; however, they are often unable to make decisions based on their analyses,” Mayo said. “As a result of that feedback, the faculty in the School of Business have developed a variety of activities, such as evaluating financial statements, evaluating local and regional companies and industries, and case analyses to strengthen skills in the area of decision making. Students are required to make decisions based on the information they gather and their analyses of the information.”
The business school is also emphasizing written and oral communication as well as professional etiquette, networking and other skills on the advice of local business leaders.
And Mayo says the business school is looking at requiring more statistics and other quantitative courses for business majors and creating an entrepreneurship concentration for management majors. Again, those changes have been suggested by local employers.
Three years ago, DSC and Hamilton Medical Center teamed up to create a dedicated education unit (DEU) to help improve the education of nursing students doing their clinical rotations at Hamilton.
“We believed that our nursing students would benefit from a more hands-on environment. The DEU makes them feel more like part of the team. The students get to work one on one with a nurse here on an actual patient assignment. The student gets to make all the decisions and work with the patient, but they have the nurse from Hamilton watching over their shoulder and being there to answer any questions they have,” said Beverly Joy, clinical quality projects coordinator at Hamilton.
Ninety-eight nursing students have gone through the program, and it has expanded to students from regional colleges other than DSC, and Joy says several have gone on to be hired at Hamilton.