COVINGTON -- A qualified workforce will be the deciding factor in whether Newton County attracts new industry and retains what's already here, according to the Chamber of Commerce.
On Tuesday, the Chamber sponsored the first Workforce Development Summit to start discussing how to make sure the local workforce is qualified to meet industry demands.
The invitation-only event took place at the newly constructed Newton College and Career Academy and brought together government agency heads, elected officials, and leaders in the fields of business, education, and economic development to address the broadening skills gap in the workforce.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle was on hand to give remarks at the start of the first panel discussion.
"Workforce development obviously is so critical for our future success," Cagle said. He added that it's important to be proactive on the education side to build a desired economy versus allowing the economy to dictate the type of education the future workforce needs.
At the Kia manufacturing plant in LaGrange, Cagle said robotics are in use, performing such tasks as moving large engines from one building to another. "This is what we have to be focused on," Cagle said.
Susie Haggard, regional project manager with the Georgia Department of Economic Development, has more than 20 years of experience in economic development. She said the trend is moving back to onshore manufacturing and industries are pulling out of the Asian countries and Germany. America has the most efficient workforce in the world, and new technologies are making it even more efficient, she said. "Even though (the workforce) is more expensive, it's also more productive," she said.
Robotics is a new technology that demands a skilled workforce, she said.
Haggard said a skilled workforce is one of the criteria industries use when deciding whether to locate in an area, along with tax rates, available land and cost of land, the market, and the logistics involved in getting goods to that market.
John Zegers, director of The Georgia Centers of Innovation, which helps industries grow and compete, said that, "We have manufacturers ready to produce more to grow but they don't have the skilled workers." Industrial growth in Georgia is primarily in existing, not new, industries, he added.
Technical colleges and career academies will need to meet those industries' needs and Zegers said industries should be involved in writing the curriculum for those institutions.
An effective program at Chattahoochee Technical College offers a basic manufacturing curriculum and then students can choose a more specific area of focus, he said. The college has partnered with Lockheed Martin for a specific course designed to address the pending retirement of several thousand employees. If students pass the course, they are guaranteed an interview with Lockheed.
On the local front, Roger Harrison, senior vice president of economic development for the Covington/Newton Office of Economic Development, said the county has added more than 500 jobs and an investment of $200 million by business and industries in the last year. That does not include an additional 300 jobs added in the retail sector.
"That's the best year we've had in a long time in Newton County," he said.
The Economic Development office is averaging about one new inquiry from prospective industries a week, he said.
The Chamber has identified four industries to target. Food and pharmaceutical manufacturing is one, because of the abundance of water resources. Lake Varner, the drinking water reservoir, holds 4 billion gallons of water. That means 1 million gallons of water could be pumped every day for 11 years from that reservoir before it runs dry, he said.
Advanced and processed manufacturing, call centers and data systems and distribution and logistics, given that the county has five exists along I-20, are the other industries targeted.
According to Shannon Davis, director of business retention and expansion for the Chamber, the purpose of the summit was to pull together partners at the local, state and regional levels to discuss how to build business and industry in Newton County.
The summit is a partial outgrowth of a business expansion and retention survey administered by the Chamber which revealed a lack of trained workers in Newton County.
A steering committee -- consisting of representatives from the school system, business and industry, colleges, and the Department of Labor -- examined the results of the survey, and developed the agenda for the summit.
Features Editor Karen Rohr contributed to this story.