Georgia Turning Graduates Into Employees

This week’s Courier Herald column:

We’re in the weeks that transition the unofficial move from Spring into Summer. Colleges have begun their graduation ceremonies with my alma mater the University of Georgia holding commencement ceremonies last Friday. Most of Georgia’s high schools will hold commencement ceremonies in the next couple of weeks. Then students will begin their summer break, save the graduates. The graduates have their entire future to explore “what’s next”.

Those graduating college are entering the best job market in a decade. Unemployment has returned to historical norms and there is evidence that wages in many industries are rising. There is reason for them to begin their new phase of life with optimism.

Those graduating high school have the traditional options ahead of them. Some will continue on to colleges and universities. Others will enter technical programs, with the State of Georgia continuing to expand the number of fields that qualify for the Governor’s “High Demand Career Initiative”, where students receive free tuition for majors where employers are having difficulty finding skilled workers.

The ability to equip students with skills that employers need has received a significant amount of attention over the past few years. Georgia currently spends more than half of all of its tax revenues on education at the K-12 and secondary levels. There is a focus on ensuring that the state is receiving the maximum return on this investment.

Part of this effort is to ensure that graduates at the secondary level have skills ready to work upon completion of their degree. Many employers that have skills gaps are in industries that traditionally have an apprenticeship model to acquire skills. On Monday, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle will announce the creation of the Georgia Association of Advanced Technical Training (GA-CATT). This partnership was made possible under last year’s Senate Bill 2, which allows schools to award a high school diploma for joint enrollment work done while completing an advanced degree.

GA-CATT brings together representatives of Technical College System of Georgia, West Georgia Technical College, the German American Chamber of Commerce, the Coweta County School System, and eight West Georgia employers to pilot an industry partnership between employers, the K-12 school system, and TCSG. The result will be a joint enrollment program that will allow students to graduate with a high school diploma, an Associate’s Degree, and a German Industrial Mechanic Certificate.

11 Students will be selected to begin this program starting next fall. They will be paid for their work time while they learn, with a wage scale beginning at $8/hour during their first year, rising to $12 per hour during their third and final year. They will graduate at the same time as their high school classmates with full qualifications to begin a job as a fully trained and skilled Industrial Mechanic.

Newnan’s Central Education Center, Georgia’s oldest College and Career Academy, will host the program. College and Career Academies have augmented much of Georgia’s K-12 Vocational and Technical education programs after Georgia’s curriculum revamp a decade ago. While most have been successful, the 36 College and Career Academies across the state have not yet achieved the full potential of Georgia high school students graduating with employable technical skills.

Employers and state officials have been seeking ways to match the skills of Georgia’s graduates with the openings available to job applicants. The accessibility of college and societal expectations has perhaps placed more of Georgia’s high school graduates into degree programs that offer little employable skills. The result is what companies who employ skilled graduates refer to as a “lost decade”, where adults in their late 20’s often must enter adult re-training programs in order to achieve the skills needed for jobs that are available.

With GA-CATT adopting a “German Model” for apprenticeship and job training, the hope is to win that decade back. Students will be able to graduate with skills employers need today. They not only will be paid for their training, but will skip expensive student loans and an aimless drift through their twenties while they try to “find themselves”.

Instead, they will be credited not only with their degree and certificate, but will be credited with “time of service accumulation” with their employer where they receive their training. Should they remain with the same employer after graduation, that’s extended seniority already banked towards promotions and eventual retirement when their peers will still be evaluating a future education and employment track.

There are only winners in this program. Students have documentation of employable skills and are earning competitive wages even before they graduate. Employers expand their pool of skilled workers. And Georgia taxpayers get a higher return on their education investment, turning students into fellow taxpayers significantly sooner than under most existing programs.

This is “what’s next” for Georgia’s education programs. It’s one where all Georgians stand to greatly benefit.

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