Newton County has negatives and positives. Its location and natural resources makes it attractive to industry, but its workforce is not up to par. The county can succeed or fail.
Community leaders gathered Wednesday evening to see the unveiling of a targeted industry study, which analyzed the county's strengths and weaknesses and identified the specific industry sectors local officials should recruit.
The results weren't surprising, but Garner Economics, a site selection and consulting firm, gathered and analyzed large amounts of data that clearly showed where Newton County stands and how it stacks up to competitors.
Newton County falls below state and national averages in the 25-34 age range and has a smaller percentage of residents with bachelor's and graduate degrees. The county's SAT scores are also well below state and national benchmarks.
On the other hand, the county does have a large available workforce, a low cost of labor and the crime rate is relatively low.
"It's easy to think we're the worst, but this was a good reality check that we were better than those benchmark counties in some areas," said Roger Harrison, the chamber's top industry recruiter. "This study and data will help us mitigate those challenges now rather than waiting 10 years down the road. Seeing all that data in one place was powerful."
Leaders know education will be a challenge and one of the first steps following the study will be to form a workforce steering committee, which will seek out short-term and long-term fixes to education. The group will host a symposium in early 2012 at the Newton County College and Career Academy.
The steering committee will also work to form a workforce strategic plan, to promote ideas like dual-enrollment, where high school students earn college credit, and increased technical and traditional college training.
The school system will also implement a principal for a day program, where community leaders shadow principals to get a first hand look at the positives and negatives in the community's schools.
Newton County also has high unemployment, low average wages ($37,577 and has seen its per capita income drop 13 percent during the past decade. Many of these are chicken-egg scenarios and will only be helped by the county recruiting quality industries with high-paying jobs. The chamber has made this its top priority.
Who to recruit?
The county needs job, so where does it need to look? Garner President Jay Garner and his team identified four sectors where Newton County will have a competitive advantage.
The county has abundant water and an established food processor in General Mills, one of the county's most visible and successful industries.
Garner identified increasingly popular food products that the county should target such as cereal, frozen deserts and specialty foods, flour mixes, tortillas, roasted nuts and peanut butter, snack foods, seasonings and dressings, perishable prepared foods and pet food.
Garner is a well-respected food site selection consultant and will be able to introduce Harrison to connected contacts.
Specialized Creative and Business Services
This is kind of a catch-all category that includes niche industries that require specialized skill sets. One area the county could explore is the movie industry, given Covington's established contacts and the presence of Triple Horse Productions, which is a production company, film studio and equipment rental location.
The county could also attract data processing and call centers, because the county has good telecommunications infrastructure. Rollins, the parent company or Orkin, has a call center here.
Other areas to pursue include engineering services, geophysical surveying and mapping services, testing laboratories, industrial design, custom computer programming services and computer systems design services.
Advanced Materials and Process Manufacturing
This is the area where Newton County can really excel because it has a large established base of industries in areas like automotive parts, plastic, glass and metal fabrication.
The county also has a qualified base of workers; when it searched for workers for its solar panel film plant, SKC had 200 qualified applicants whom it didn't hire, Harrison said.
Workers formally in construction or mechanical fields could be great fits for these fields, as long as they have adequate computer skills.
Other areas to pursue include pharmaceutical preparation, biological products, adhesive and surgical and medical instruments. C.R. Bard would fit into this category.
Distribution and Logistics
While residents envision tractor trailers and warehouses, Garner said this includes higher-end logistical companies. The county is a good fit with its highways, rail access and airport.
Subtargets within this group include refrigerated storage, general warehousing, couriers and express delivery services and specialized local freight trucking.
One other recommended change was to double economic development spending to around $500,000 and hire a part-time secretary for the department. Harrison said the chamber would look for a combination of private and public funding to enhance the budget.
Bang for the buck
The study cost $50,000, and Harrison said he was impressed and pleased with the results.
In addition to helping improve the chamber's strategies, Garner has been introducing Harrison to fellow site selection consultants, expanding his base of contacts. This is one of the key areas that Harrison will devote future time to.
The News will follow up with further stories when the full study is released.