Manufacturing jobs reward skilled high school grads, while businesses beg for more trainees. Should the state incentivize more tech training?

A high school student in the dual enrollment manufacturing program at Central Educational Center in Newnan uses a mechanical drill in the machine tool lab at West Georgia Technical College. (Credit: Central Educational Center)

NEWNAN, Ga. – Welders. Electricians. Precision machine operators. High school students with advanced skills gained in dual enrollment programs in Georgia’s technical schools are in high demand among manufacturing firms and other industries and making good money when they graduate. 

A joint legislative study committee met last week to explore ways to help more schools and businesses make the most of the state’s Accelerated Career pathways program and to get more skilled young workers into the job pipeline.

Convincing students and parents of the many upsides of careers in technical and skilled trades seems to be the key — and also a challenge.

What’s Happening

The second meeting of the Joint Study Committee on Dual Enrollment for Highly Skilled Talent at Younger Ages was held in Newnan at the Central Educational Center (CEC), one of the state’s premier College and Career Academies, which blend high school academics with technical college courses and hands-on training opportunities with local businesses.  

The meeting focused on manufacturing and skilled trades, and committee members, who include legislators, education and business leaders, heard from those representing nearby post-secondary schools and businesses that train and employ high school students.

Four companies that presented operate work-based learning programs, where starting in 10th or 11th grade, students are paid to train alongside adult co-workers, and usually end up at age 18 or 20 with a high school diploma and a college associate degree, technical diploma, or two or more technical certifications. Some earn upward of $20,000 during their training.

Starting salaries for graduates with Advanced Career diplomas in manufacturing and skilled trades range from $40,000 to $80,000, Mark Whitlock, the CEC executive director, told State Affairs.

One such graduate is Cole McKeehan, 22, who has worked at E.G.O. North America in Newnan since he began as an apprentice at 15. Since then, E.G.O., which makes heating system components, has continually promoted McKeehan, first to line tech, then to maintenance tech and machinist jobs. Now he’s the plant’s preventive maintenance coordinator. 

He told the committee he graduated with a high school diploma and an associate degree, and said, “I moved out at 19 and bought a house at 20.”

Kason Industries in Coweta County, which makes commercial hardware for the food service and trucking industries, is partnering with CEC and West Georgia Technical College to train students as industrial mechanics in a rigorous German-style apprenticeship program. Kason has hired three students as apprentices who have “hit the floor running,” said Bill Zeller, the human resources manager at Kason. “We could use 20 more.”

The company needs more workers who understand how robotics, cameras and artificial intelligence are applied to manufacturing processes, said Manufacturing Engineer Manager Ken New. 

One of the diploma programs offered in the state’s Advanced Career program is mechatronics, which deals with robotics and electro-mechanical systems. Zeller said his company would like to see more students enroll in such advanced-skill training programs.  

“And we’re willing to commit our time, our services, our dollars to help do that,” he said.

Jay Tompkins, production manager for GEMU Valves North America, based in Fulton County, said his company is “growing exponentially” and planning for a new facility in metro Atlanta. He said much of his skilled workforce is nearing retirement and he needs new employees who can learn new technologies the business needs to expand. 

The young apprentices GEMU has hired “are so excited and hungry to learn, and to bring these new ideas and technologies to manufacturing,” he said.

Noah Zehr, director of operations for Weiler Forestry in Troup County, which designs and builds forestry equipment, said the company is sending some work to its sister plant in Iowa due to the lack of skilled workers in Georgia. “We can’t get enough welders or machinists. I could use 40 or 50 more today,” he said.

A high school student from Golden Isles College & Career Academy in Brunswick practices electrical skills at Coastal Pines Technical College. (Credit: Technical College System of Georgia)

And Nicole Heimann, head of global training for Gerresheimer, a German firm that makes plastic medical devices, said the company’s ongoing expansion from 200 to 400 employees at its Peachtree City site was planned with hiring more dual enrollment students from Georgia in mind.

That’s good news for April Parker, an East Coweta High School counselor whose daughter, an 11thgrader, is part of the machine tooling program at Gerresheimer.

A CEC high school student learns to weld in the welding lab at West Georgia Technical College. (Credit: Central Educational Center)

“She wanted to work with her hands,” said Parker. “She loves what her life has become. … They’ve trained her in the entire plant. Her friends are blown away at what she has the opportunity to do.” 

Currently, 526 students are enrolled in the state’s Accelerated Career pathway, said Derek Dabrowiak, assistant commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG). That’s triple the number enrolled since 2020. The pathway was created in 2015 through SB 2, which made it lawful for students dually enrolled in technical college programs to graduate from high school with just two years of high school academic courses. 

Overall, TCSG had 34,794 students participating in dual enrollment programs pursuing diplomas or technical credentials in the 2022-23 academic year at 22 technical colleges across the state. The total number of dual enrollment students at all colleges, universities and technical schools in Georgia in 2023 was 52,920, according to the Georgia Student Finance Commission.

Dual enrollment programs got a financial boost this year from SB 86, a new law that allows high school students enrolled in certain high-demand Career, Technical and Agricultural Education (CTAE) programs to access HOPE Grant funds, previously available only to those pursuing post-secondary education, over the next three years.

That’s important assistance for many families, because in 2020 the General Assembly capped what the state will pay for dual enrollment tuition to 30 total hours — equivalent to about one year of course work. Dual enrollment students in high-demand programs seeking additional credentials, including two-year associate degrees, now don’t have to pay out of pocket to complete their programs. 

Why It Matters

Expanding support for training in skilled trades is needed “because our employers can’t find the technical talent they need,” said Whitlock. “They’re expanding facilities, expanding manufacturing, and what they lack is the people with skills to make sure that the factories that are increasingly mechanized and automated continue running.”

In Fiscal Year 2023, investments in new and expanded facilities in Georgia totaled more than $24 billion, and created 38,400 new jobs through 426 projects, including numerous high-tech manufacturing ventures, according to the Department of Economic Development.

But the labor market remains tight. Georgia’s jobless rate was 3.2% in July. As of the end of June, there were 354,000 job openings, according to the Georgia Chamber Foundation, but not nearly enough qualified workers to fill them. About 170,000 workers filed for unemployment benefits, suggesting that even if all of them were qualified to fill such jobs, tens of thousands of positions would remain unfilled.

“And the number of open positions that require only two years or less of post-secondary education greatly outweighs the number of open positions that require a four-year degree,” said Irene Munn, an education and governmental affairs consultant who gave a presentation about Accelerated Career pathways at the committee meeting. She facilitates partnerships between businesses and college and career academies.

Munn noted that the emphasis in K-12 education is on pursuing four-year, academic degree programs, as opposed to technical programs, whose graduates “are in extremely high demand in the job market. So I think that’s the policy question the committee needs to consider,” she said. “Our ask is to put access to academic education and technical education on equal footing.”

What’s Next

Lawmakers at the meeting grappled with how to better promote and expand the Accelerated Career program, which depends on strong partnerships between schools, businesses and Georgia’s technical schools to work. 

Employers present said that one of their biggest challenges is convincing some parents of students that the opportunities in technical colleges are as good as those in four-year schools, and that they’re not all dirty, dangerous jobs.

Committee co-chair Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, asked attendees what would help to recruit more students and parents to technical programs.

Julie Post, the president of West Georgia Technical College, said that more high school counselors are needed to explain to students what their options are. 

“We have a pretty abysmal ratio of counselors to students,” said Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. 

Sen. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, a committee co-chair, said that school counselors are saddled with multiple responsibilities beyond college and career guidance, including looking after the mental health of students. It’s almost as if they have two jobs, he said.

“I’d submit that there’s some overlap between the two,” said Dan Weber, executive director of the Charter School Foundation, which provides advocacy and training for Georgia’s charter schools. “A student that sees no future, is not engaged, and doesn’t see a traditional high school diploma as relevant to their life — and you can put them on a path where they can work with their hands … and come out making $45,000 a year — that’s transformational, not only for the student, but for their family,” he said.

“We’ve built something great,” said Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Atlanta. She suggested the committee might make skilled-trade jobs more attractive to students and parents by taking a page from Steve Rowe and his “Dirty Jobs” TV show, which explores and elevates challenging jobs, some involving manual labor and skilled trades.

“We may need to put some budgetary money into advertising on social media to show what kind of money you can make,” she said.

The joint study committee meets next on Sept. 19 in Atlanta. 

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Have comments or tips on workforce or education issues? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on Twitter @journalistajill or at [email protected].

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Header photo:  A high school student in the dual enrollment manufacturing program at Central Educational Center in Newnan uses a mechanical drill in the machine tool lab at West Georgia Technical College. (Credit: Central Educational Center)