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Posted: December 17, 2013 9:00 p.m.

Labor commissioner: Workers need ‘soft skills’

Georgia residents and students need new skills to compete in more efficient, technology-based workplaces, but they also need top-notch "soft skills" to work with their peers and please customers, and Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said his department is working in both areas.

Butler spoke last week to the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce’s Existing Industry Council, and told local industry and community leaders about efforts to get Georgians back to work and help industries find qualified workers.

Improving workers

Butler shared details about two programs designed to improve the Georgia workforce. The Special Workforce Assistance Team (SWAT) takes some of the department of labor’s top employees into communities with high unemployment and works with local nonprofits and colleges to develop a series of workshops for residents. The workshops focus on teaching jobseekers how to market themselves through resumes, social media and in-person interviews, navigate job fairs and even find grants to go back to school for more training.

The SWAT program was first used in Dalton in late 2012, because the city had a 12 percent unemployment rate, among the highest in the state; the concept has since been used in other cities.

However, even if residents had the skills to get jobs, companies complained about a lack of "soft skills" in new hires, Butler said. Soft skills, which Butler said might have been called "common sense" or "business ethics" in the past, include dressing appropriately for work, showing up on time, using time wisely, and working successfully with co-workers.

The labor department started up the GeorgiaBEST (Business Ethics Student Training) in high schools to train students before they hit the workforce. Butler said schools weren’t giving students books or formal tests, but were testing them the same way employees are tested in real life: in day-to-day observation.

If a student is late, unprepared or not participating in activities, he or she can be given negative marks. If a student meets the criteria often enough, however, that student can be certified a GeorgiaBEST student.

Schools have added to the program, having students write resumes, build portfolios, do mock interviews and even get internships, Butler said. The program is now in more than 190 schools, and businesses are asking for a similar program for professional workplaces.

Both the Newton College and Career Academy and the chamber are implementing soft-skills classes locally.

Dave Bernd, the chamber’s new retail recruiter and a former industry executive, said he believes Lean Six Sigma training – a process by which companies try to eliminate waste and improve consistency – should be part of the training process for prospective workers; Butler said that was a great idea that would be considered.

Hiring veterans

Butler said another focus of the labor department is finding work for veterans. He said the U.S. Dept. of Defense has told Georgia officials to expect tens of thousands of veterans to return to the state during the next four years.

While the G.I. Bill is well-known, Butler said there is another program that allows military veterans ages 35 to 60 to get another 12 months of free schooling.

While the program stopped Oct. 1, Butler said the state is trying to convince the federal government to reinstate it.

In addition, Butler said there is a federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit that gives businesses a $2,400 federal tax credit per veteran hired.

If a veteran has a service-related disability and is unemployed, the tax credit can grow to as much as $9,600, he said.

Businesses can qualify for the tax credit by hiring workers who meet other criteria, including those who receive food stamps and other federal assistance, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor.

Where are the jobs?

A representative from a technical college asked what high-growth job fields colleges should be focusing on. Butler said more young people need to be told about opportunities in the skilled trades, including construction, which is seeing a high demand as home-building returns. Butler said information technology and advanced technology manufacturing are other big areas, as some IT and computer programming jobs are returning to the U.S. from overseas.

Machine mechanics, capable of working on the variety of machines used in various industries, are also in high demand, Butler said.

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