Without a highly skilled workforce in place, Newton County will struggle to attract the kind of industries that can truly bring up the county’s per capita income and improve its quality of life, according to the county’s top industrial recruiters.
So they are turning their focus inward and devoting resources to prepare the county’s students, and to retrain willing adults, for technologically advanced careers.
Hunter Hall, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, which oversees the Newton County Office of Economic Development, presented to the Covington City Council and Newton County Board of Commissioners recently and laid out the new economic development strategy.
For a period of time, particularly in late 2011, Covington attracted one new industry after another, filling vacant buildings and bringing hope of a rapidly improving economy. Expansion by existing industries SKC and Nisshinbo showed the county’s heavyweight industries were faring well, and global medical manufacturer Baxter International’s announcement of a $1 billion campus of facilities in April 2012 was the crown jewel and justified years of optimism and heavy investment in Stanton Springs industrial park.
But announcements have been noticeably absent since then, and Hall told the council Monday many of the new industries that came previously – Baxter excepted – were “low-hanging fruit.”
The modus operandi has been to recruit industry and then make sure the workforce is developed to fill the need, but that model is no longer enough for industry, Hall said.
He said “the new normal in economic development” flips the cycle; now, the ability to show you have an already qualified workforce is the top goal. Hall said requests for information that come in from prospective industries now have a heavy focus on workforce.
The chamber is working with the Newton County School System to make students are workforce ready, and the Newton College and Career Academy is a key driver of that movement. At the career academy, students choose a career pathway and receive practical training from teachers with real-world experience. Even in lower grades, the chamber and school system partner to make sure teachers are showing students connections between education and real jobs.
Hall said the success or failure of the school system will drive the success of failure of the community as a whole.
However, the chamber is also working to recruit quality workers from outside the county; Hall said Baxter employees are a prime example of this strategy. In a case like that, the key factors become quality-of-life issues. Hall said the chamber is constantly promoting development of more amenities. He listed the top five quality-of-life factors, in order, for prospective residents: schools, retail options, art programs for students, recreation (sports and outdoor activities), and housing.
In some ways, the efforts are a chicken-or-egg scenario, because a lack of retail stores and entertainment options are a common refrain of existing county residents. Hall said no sector of business is more data driven than retail, and retail companies aren’t moving unless they see certain per-capita income and demographics levels.
When prospective industries do look at Newton County, the Newton County Industrial Development Authority, the local body that often negotiates incentive packages for industries, won’t offer incentives for industries that aren’t offering above-average wages.
“We have to keep moving that needle forward,” Hall said.
Hall called the plan a “holistic economic development strategy,” that simultaneously works to develop a workforce, improve amenities to recruit outside workers, help existing industries grow and succeed, and continue to aggressively pursue new industries.
However, Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston asked how the chamber will measure success. With the old strategy, the measurement for success was the number of jobs added, Johnston said, but it seems less clear-cut now.
Hall said the chamber doesn’t yet know, but one suggestion could be reducing the number of workers who commute to metro Atlanta for work. He said 70 percent of Newton County’s active workers commute outside of Newton County to their jobs, and the majority of those are located in western Newton County, which boasts the highest levels of education and income in the county. Hall said there is a difference of around 14,000 jobs between the number of people who leave the county for work and those who come to Newton County for work.
Hall said with the exception of the last couple of years, the county hasn’t had any industrial growth, but it had booming residential growth over the past decade plus, so many workers had no choice but to find jobs in Atlanta – yet they still chose to live in Newton County for housing prices and quality of life. Hall and Johnston both agreed the hope is the county could soon offer an enhanced quality of life, affordable housing and quality, high-paying jobs.
Retail recruitment efforts
Johnston asked about the $93,000 the council decided to shift to aid in recruitment of retail businesses.
Hall said the chamber is working to put data together before it begins approaching retailers.
“What are you going to tell them?” Hall said, referring to the fact retailers don’t respond to anything but demographic statistics.
The chamber is working with Kay Lee at The Center for Community Preservation and Planning to pull together data that to show specifically what the county already has and what it needs. Armed with those numbers, Hall hopes the recruiter can target businesses and make a strong sales pitch. He said to start recruiting without data “would be wasting dollars.” The plan is for the study to be completed by the end of the year.