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Posted: December 11, 2011 12:30 a.m.

Chamber: Workforce improvement key

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Newton County has had some recent success recruiting industries, but future success will be largely tied to the ability of the county to develop a higher-skilled workforce.

From third graders to adults in their third career, the chamber, Georgia Department of Labor, schools and businesses are partnering together to improve worker education, skill level and professionalism.

"Newton County has a 12 percent unemployment rate, but that 12 percent of people are not always qualified for the jobs available today," said Shannon Davis, who's leading and coordinating the workforce development charge from the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce.

"From that perspective, we have to do better job of reskilling or upskilling our residents. So, we've brought together an advisory committee, made up of K-12 administrators, the Georgia Department of Labor, technical colleges and business and industry leaders."

Davis said the purpose of the newly-formed committee, which recently had its first meeting, is to create synergy among all stakeholders and find gaps that exist in the system.

For example, many workers lack interpersonal business skills, often called "soft" skills, such as shaking hands when meeting someone, making eyecontact when speaking, dressing appropriately for business situations and punctuality.

In response, Live Oak Elementary has begun a "Life Skills" program for third and fifth graders, where children are taught the proper way to shake hands, as well as higher-level ideas such as the difference between arguing and debating.

"It's OK to disagree, but here's the right way to do it," said Davis, who went to Live Oak recently as part of the chamber's Principal for the Day program.

The school system is also continuing its Youth Apprenticeship and Work-based Learning programs, where high school students receive training on interpersonal business skills. The programs culminated with the annual Aspiring Young Professionals (a play off the other AYP, Adequate Yearly Progress) dinner held Thursday at the Turner Lake Complex.

During the dinner dozens of business and community leaders were asked to observe and later evaluate students on six points: handshake and eye contact, appropriateness of dress, ability to make appropriate conversation, greeting and introduction, courtesy to speakers, and table manners. Evaluators were also asked, "Based on this meeting, would you invite this student for a job interview if you had an opening to fill?"

"AYP has proven to be an excellent opportunity for our students to meet community and business leaders and to practice important soft skills necessary to be successful in career and post-secondary opportunities. As one student put it, ‘Wow! What an evening,'" said Cynthia Marvel, school system career related education coordinator.

These types of classes and programs seek to supplement students' traditional education with business-specific behavioral skills, which business leaders say are missing.

"Students quite often do not have the opportunity to pratice professional behaviors and skills needed in the workforce. The AYP Banquet provide students a social/networking environment with business and industry leaders who are looking for these traits in their workplace," said James Woodard, director of Career, Technical and Agricultural Education for the school system.

Davis and other leaders will be ratcheting up efforts in 2012, beginning with a March 28 workforce development summit. The event will have local, regional and state panelists discussing workforce needs. Local success stories will also be shared, including internship programs between the school system and businesses and the newly-started Principal for the Day effort. The keynote speaker will be an executive at Manpower Staffing, a global staffing company with an office in Conyers, who will speak about the reality of the talent shortage.

"Our hope is to lay out opportunities for growth, talk about best practices and highlight the things we're already doing," Davis said. "Our workforce pipeline affects our ability to recruit and retain industry and business. We need to point out our strengths while recognizing our challenges. We recognize we're good, but let's be great."

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