Georgia’s Skills Gap Affects Wages, Economic Growth

This week’s Courier Herald column:

There’s a lot of wisdom behind the old saying “he couldn’t see the forest for the trees.”  Sometimes we get so focused on what is right in front of us that we can’t see the bigger picture, no matter how obvious it is.

This phrase can also help us understand the divide between politics and policy.  Politics has become an exercise in winning an infinitely long argument, that seems to have had no beginning and has no end in sight.  At times it appears some can’t see the tree for the branch in front of them, while some can only see the single leaf they’re arguing over.

Modern politics requires getting voters’ attention laser focused on one issue that they will feel passionate about.  Elections often become referendums on one soundbite, one incident, or one slogan.

In the broad landscape of public policy, all of the slogans and soundbites are interconnected.  For every action, there are additional reactions, like ripples from a skipping stone across the water.

Having worked predominately on the policy side of this equation for the past few years, I have both great respect and deepest sympathy for those tasked with navigating public policy through the political process.  And it is with this long preamble that I would like to call attention to the work being done at the Metro Atlanta Chamber in the policy forest of workforce development.

There are a lot of trees in this forest:  Primary (K-12) education, Technical Colleges, the University System of Georgia, student loan debt, living wages, unemployment, and Georgia’s ability to recruit and retain employers are just some of the issues that we fight over myopically.  The Metro Atlanta Chamber has spent years defining Georgia’s workforce – both the skills our residents have and lack, those that employers want and aren’t as excited about – to analyze what they then define as our “skills gap”. 

The results are fascinating to anyone willing to move beyond bumper sticker phraseology and wonk out on data, even if only at the top level of analysis.

We know the jobs that employers have the largest number of entry-level jobs.  They are registered nurses, truck drivers, software/computer occupations, sales, and management.  These combined represent a broad cross section of specialized skills.

We know the top degree and certificate programs producing graduates ready for the workforce.  They are in healthcare, business, education, computer and information sciences, and liberal arts.

Combining numbers on each, however, reveals that Georgia is failing to produce enough graduates to meet demand in some areas, while our system is producing significantly more graduates to meet demand in others.  Georgia significantly undersupplies the demand for business, management, and marketing, and has large gaps in the core demand for Precision Production, Transportation, and Construction.  Georgia oversupplies the entire demand for Personal and Culinary Services, as well as Family and Consumer Sciences.

Not surprisingly, the supply and demand of available skills translate into wage levels, both initially and five years after graduation.  While most degree and certificate programs lead to salaries at or above living wages, both Personal and Culinary Services and Family and Consumer Sciences average out below the level of a living wage in Georgia after five years of experience.

Georgia spends more than half of its budget on our education system.  We then spend billions more on a variety of programs that provide various safety nets, which go disproportionately to those at or below Georgia’s living wage. 

For politicians that want to see how each of these programs are providing a return on Georgia’s investment, as well as to tailor outcomes to the skills that make Georgians not only employable but in growing, high wage occupations, the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s skills gap analysis should be required reading.

The various issues may still need to be solved tree by tree.  Understanding how each of these issues are connected and interdependent would help Georgia’s economy remain a healthy forest.

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