Workforce is often the number one concern companies have when thinking about locating in Walton County. They are unsure the area has enough skilled labor to meet their needs. A big part of Dessa Morris’ job is to change that.

She works for the Development Authority of Walton County and coordinates between industries and schools to try to equip Waltonians with the skills they need to be successful. Here, she talks about the workforce challenges Walton County faces and what the Development Authority and others are trying to do to meet them.

Walton Tribune: Workforce availability is often companies’ biggest concerns when locating to Walton County. Why?

Dessa Morris: In 2018 the national workforce experienced historic gains, unemployment rates fell to a 50-year low and more than 2 million jobs were added. Here in Georgia, the unemployment rate is 3.8%. Walton County beats that with an unemployment rate of 3.4%. Finding the talent to ensure a company’s success is critical – and it’s not as easy as it once was.

Today’s careers are more skilled than ever before. According to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, 60% of jobs in 2025 will require some form of college education. This college requirement could range from technical college certification to a doctorate from a traditional university. Most opportunities fall in the middle. Locally our industrial partners are eager to provide certifications and other education opportunities to motivated, mature employees.

Here in Walton County, we are competing with locations throughout the world. Industrial site selectors are eager to narrow their choices and are constantly evaluating their top three criteria. According to a February 6th article in Forbes, “When it comes to site selection for a new corporate office or operations hub, those three factors are workforce, workforce, workforce. It’s all about the available pool of talent with the skills and wage expectations that best fit a company’s business goals. And, as recent events have shown us, available talent can be more important than government-offered incentives.”

In short, securing the talent needed for our current and future industries to be successful is essential to the vibrance of our community.

WT: How are you trying to fix that? 

DM: The Development Authority of Walton County recognizes that a talented workforce is of utmost importance to our county. While we have a strong industrial community and strong education communities, these groups were working mostly independently to address local workforce challenges. Since November 2017, these groups meet regularly to develop solutions together to address our workforce challenges.  The Development Authority hosts a quarterly Walton Workforce Advisory Council to bring together industry leaders, superintendents from both school systems, leadership from Athens Technical College, Department of Labor, Communities In Schools, Walton Chamber of Commerce and other key decision makers to address our current and future talent needs.

This group launched Walton Works during the 2018-19 school year to have a space to work together to address local workforce challenges. Through Walton Works, we targeted high school students to increase their knowledge of local industrial career opportunities and their employability skills. We enhanced the manufacturing presence at the Communities In Schools/Walton Chamber College & Career Expo, hosted industry tours at Leggett & Platt and Takeda. We brought back former Walmart Distribution Center general manager Charles Lollar for assemblies at all four public high schools and facilitated activities and discussion as students returned to Career, Technical and Agricultural Education classrooms to reinforce the importance of showing up on time, showing up every day, and passing a drug test - the top three areas of concern for local industries.

During spring semester, we returned with a skit and classroom activities to reinforce interview skills and enhance resumes. This all led to interviews for graduating seniors with Hitachi Automotive and Holder Construction as well as Apply For A Job sessions at each high school. These sessions are much like Apply To College events with community leaders on site to assist with applications and resumes.

Walton Works is being updated this summer with plans for local industries to regularly visit high schools, much like college representatives, and a locally-produced, 10-video series to be used in 11th and 12th grade advisement. The premier event will be a Career Expo hosted by Communities in Schools and the Walton Chamber on February 6th, 2020. The expo will feature company and career exhibits, employability skills workshops and industry tours for more than 2,000 high school juniors and seniors.

We understand strengthening our workforce is a regional challenge and that employees from as far as 90 miles away work here in Walton County. We are finalizing details for participation in a 2020 regional educator externship program. Next month we are piloting a Walton Works educator externship. Selected educators will spend a week at either Hitachi Automotive or Takeda to understand more about the company and the skills needed to be successful there.

In addition to working with local high schools, the Development Authority is also helping companies explore the use of veteran talent to meet our workforce needs. Just last week we invited local industries and law enforcement agencies to a luncheon with representatives from the U.S. Army PaYs program and the National Guard’s Work for Warriors Georgia program. We are committed to meeting this workforce challenge from many different directions.

WT: What skills are most in demand from employers in Walton County?

DM: Walton County industries have identified three basic requirements of employees – showing up on time, coming to work every day, and the ability to pass a drug test. Further, if employees can think critically and show some initiative, they can move up and have a successful, long-term local career. Companies are willing to provide additional training and certifications for those motivated employees.

Consistently, the hardest job to fill among Walton County industries is industrial maintenance. Hitachi Automotive and Walmart DC are working with Athens Technical College to start apprenticeship programs. Industrial Maintenance is a great career with a starting salary of $60,000 or higher. Now that industrial and education leaders are meeting regularly, we recently discovered that 66 students at Walnut Grove High School expressed a high interest in industrial maintenance as a career. I am hopeful there are similar numbers from the other three high schools and am most excited to meet with these students and lead them to a high-quality career and life right here in our community.

WT: What do you think is the best way for current high school students to prepare themselves for careers in Walton County?

DM: The Georgia Chamber also shares that 65% of today’s children will work in a job type that does not exist now. Preparing for this reality can be daunting to today’s leaders. However, we do know that employability or soft skills are critical to professional success. Students need to understand that being tardy to class may be acceptable in high school, but it is detrimental to professional success. I was surprised to hear that students did not equate being tardy as being late. This discrepancy happened consistently as industry and community volunteers worked with high school students to increase their soft skills this past school year.  High school students should use their high school years to prepare for professional success by being on time to every class, turning in all assignments on time, remaining drug free, and using the resources of the teachers, counselors and Walton Works volunteers to learn about the many local, in-demand careers

WT: If you were trying to persuade a recent high school graduate to live and work in Walton County, what would you say? 

DM: There is great opportunity in our community. We have many available jobs with room to advance and grow. You want to live in a vibrant community with a strong industrial base. We have that and so much more right here in Walton County. Visit our industrial jobs board to view more than 100 available jobs from forklift drivers to production associates to plant managers. We also need engineers, scientists, managers, computer programmers, machinists, cyber security experts and many other professionals right here in your backyard. Learn more about these local companies and the types of available careers that are of most interest to you; start a conversation with these companies. They are all looking for great people. Be willing to start at an entry-level position and grow with the company. Walton County has a great quality of life and the opportunity for successful local careers without fighting traffic to commute to a job in another community.

Andrew Kenneson was a staff writer for The Walton Tribune from 2018-20.

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