I had coffee this week with a new friend, a political science professor at Emory University who specializes in the area of workforce development. Among other things, his work involves looking at how well graduates from an area’s technical colleges match that area’s labor force needs. This sort of work hits close to home for me, since my first big project upon joining the Murphy Center team was to update a massive labor force assessment document for the Southeast Georgia Joint Development Authority. The disparity between the skills of Southeast Georgia’s labor pool and the needed skills of potential industry was always a part of the conversation surrounding this labor force assessment.

Here are the numbers:

According to Economic Modeling Specialists International (EMSI), among jobs that generally require a certification or diploma, our region’s highest-employing occupations in 2017 — other than military jobs — were in food preparation, business/management, nursing or nursing assistants, truck driving and teaching or teaching assistants.

Coastal Pines Technical College offers programs in each of those fields, and with the exception of driving, College of Coastal Georgia (CCGA) also offers associate’s and/or bachelor’s degrees in each area. At Coastal Pines, the most awarded certificates in the 2016-2017 academic year were in health care professions (600 certificates), as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. Of Coastal Pines’ granted certificates, 81 were in business, 73 certificates were in transportation and 18 were in education. The most popular programs at CCGA were in health-related fields (106 associate’s and bachelor’s degrees) and in the business school (85 associate’s and bachelor’s degrees), which includes culinary arts. CCGA also graduated 43 education majors in 2016-2017.

With those numbers, it appears that our education system is turning out relatively large numbers of folks trained to work in our largest employment sectors — culinary, business, and health care.

An alternative consideration comes when one looks not at the list of our current largest employment sectors but at the list of our fastest growing sectors. According to EMSI, the occupations expected to grow fastest in our area between 2017 and 2022 are largely health care occupations, and almost all of them are in the field of mental health. Our schools are training health care workers, but the data show, we are not training enough in psychiatric care. Several of these fields require graduate diplomas, which CCGA is not permitted to offer. Yet, the top two fastest growing occupations are psychiatric technicians and psychiatric aides, both of which could be trained at the technical college level. According to their website, Coastal Pines does not yet offer a program for either of these.

Overall, the data do not show a terribly bleak picture of the match-up between our college or technical college graduates and our current employment sectors, but the match is not as good for our fastest growing occupations. A similar picture emerges from talking with our city and county economic development teams about missed opportunities to attract potential industry because of a misfit between the potential labor demand and our current labor supply.

The moral of the story is that to be most successful at economic growth, we need to have constant communication and cooperation among all parties involved in growing current business, attracting new business, and training our labor force. It is not enough to be prepared to fill our current jobs. Educational institutions need to be involved in looking to the future — providing programs to fill growing sectors and using data to advise students toward those programs.

Dr. Melissa Trussell is a professor in the School of Business and Public Management at College of Coastal Georgia who works with the college’s Reg Murphy Center for Economic and Policy Studies. Contact her at mtrussell@ccga.edu.

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