In Northeast Georgia, along the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, beautiful Stephens County has an abundance of natural scenery and outdoor recreation. Lake Hartwell offers many opportunities for water activities such as boating and fishing. The county is blessed to have the educational institutions and healthcare facilities that form the foundation of a high quality of life for its population of approximately 25,000.
Stephens County is in a great position for business on the I-85 corridor between Atlanta, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina. The community has made significant investments to become a desirable location for growth and ensure that the proper infrastructure is in place including water, wastewater, natural gas, broadband connectivity, and transportation. The county has taken an extra step to have its industrial park certified through a program called Georgia Ready for Accelerated Development (GRAD), and this certification reassures new companies that the county has performed the critical pre-development steps such as examining the environmental considerations and geotechnical capabilities of the sites.
Stephens County is heavily focused on its educational system and how that relates to the workforce in the area. High school students in Stephens County have the opportunity to enroll in a work-based learning program that allows them to take time away from school and work in various businesses and industries in the area. The school system has partnerships with seventy-five work sites in multiple industries across Stephens County. These include healthcare facilities, retail establishments, restaurants, service organizations, and manufacturing operations.
Specifically related to the manufacturing plants, students hold positions in all departments including human resources, accounting, engineering, and computer numerical control (CNC) machining. “We’ve had several programs at the high school where the students can become certified or receive technical skills credentials. One of those is our Healthcare Pathway. Our students can become CNA (certified nursing assistant) certified. They can also pass a sports medicine certification or an allied health certification,” says Pam Hill, Director and Coordinator for the work-based learning program and the youth apprenticeship director for the Stephens County School System. There are several students placed at the hospital, nursing homes, doctors, dentists, and veterinarian offices, and in home health care.
The program is not limited by the lines of Stephens County. There are local students who work in the five surrounding counties. These students attend high school in Toccoa and have taken positions in other counties where the internship matches their interests and desired pathway better.
The school system works with the county to develop new positions for students who demonstrate a particular interest in a field in which there is no current position. There is an emerging film industry presence in Stephens County, and five movie projects have been filmed here within the past two years. When one student took a serious interest in filmmaking, he was placed with the chamber of commerce to work as part of marketing the county to the film industry. “The purpose of the work-based learning program is to discover the aptitudes and talents of students and encourage them to pursue a long-term career in a field that interests them,” says Hill.
“Right now we have 185 students for the semester, so we are on target to have roughly four hundred students participating in work-based learning this year. Last year, we had 345, which was our highest enrollment to date,” says Hill. “Our students, last year, worked ninety thousand hours and earned over three-quarters of a million dollars, so we also interject income back into the community.”
Stephens High School has grades nine through twelve, and most students who take part in the program are in the eleventh and twelfth grades since the minimum age to participate is sixteen. Out of the 1,100 students enrolled at the high school, almost forty percent will participate in the internship program during their high school career.
The county supports this type of effort in the school system because it recognizes that test scores are important, but the soft skills required to keep a good job are more difficult to teach without work experience.
“While there’s a lot of focus in any given state about testing, the challenge that we’re hearing around town is that kids don’t have soft skills. This program teaches students the importance of being able to stay committed, show up to work, be on time, and build relationships,” says Brian Dorsey, Superintendent of the Stephens County School System.
The relationship that has developed between the students and the community is unique and beneficial for both sides. The student receives exposure to real-life applications of hard work and knowledge, and the community’s businesses receive access to trainable students and the opportunity to establish a stronger workforce.
Brian Dorsey is thoroughly impressed with the program and its effect on the students. For example, one senior student who works in a restaurant as a part of the work-based learning program has taken an interest in a new path of technical college and manufacturing, and his new goal is to join local manufacturing company, ASI. “I talked to him about going to look at doing something this year with ASI, and – then this is what impressed me so much about the young man and what he has learned in the Work Based Learning program – he said while that would be tempting for him, he had made a commitment to his current organization, and he intended to honor that commitment,” Dorsey says proudly. Hearing a senior high school student express his loyalty to his work commitment and his community is a great sign for the years to come in Stephens County.
North Georgia Technical College was established in 1943, and it was the first postsecondary vocational-technical school in Georgia. It has three campuses in northeast Georgia; the main campus is in Clarkesville, the second campus is in Blairsville, and the third campus is located in Toccoa, which is the county seat of Stephens County. This fall, there are 2,833 students enrolled at the Toccoa campus. In all three campuses, there are 441 students who are from Stephens County.
The college develops programs that mesh directly with the existing industries in the county. The Toccoa campus recently added 15,000 square feet of space for nursing and allied health programs, and the nursing program has a clinical site at Stephens County Hospital. It offers many popular programs including paramedics, robotics, culinary, criminal justice, automotive, and welding.
North Georgia Technical College partners with secondary school systems to provide dual enrollment programs. There are approximately six hundred students who participate in dual enrollment, fifty-seven of whom are from the Stephens County School System. The program gives students an opportunity to get a head start in their career choices, and the state of Georgia has done a wonderful job at making the program cost extremely affordable for the students.
Many of the courses offered by the college in the dual enrollment program are transferable to the four-year university system and are designed to fulfill the needs of the local industry. “We look at the local industry and determine the need in the area through a survey, and then we build a program up and try our best to get students into those programs,” says Dr. Mark Ivester, President of North Georgia Technical College. “We do a lot of customized training where we build a program just for a specific workforce or a specific company.” The college uses advisory boards that work with the industries to determine the exact skill set that is required in various fields and positions.
Tim Martin, the Executive Director of the Stephens County Development Authority, considers Stephens County very fortunate to have such unique career and technical education opportunities. “The value that both the school system and the technical college provide our industry is not only their core curriculum of the basics and the fundamentals of those different subject areas that you would expect a student to have when they graduate, but they are also laser-focused on adding customized value in their training programs, training tailored to specific local needs.”
Local industry challenges are intensified by the tight labor market. The unemployment rate is very low, and it is a struggle to secure additional workers for the local manufacturing companies. A method that the county uses to attempt to develop its workforce is by reaching out to students as young as fourteen who might have an aptitude for manufacturing careers and helping them to develop an interest in the many educational opportunities offered in the later years of high school.
The skewed perception of manufacturing work is another obstacle when developing the required workforce. “One of the big challenges we talk about nationally when we’re trying to train the workforce, especially in the manufacturing sector, is still the perception of these manufacturing careers. Too many people think that these careers are the old manufacturing careers of dirty jobs, but they are actually very high-tech jobs,” says Dr. Ivester.
One way that the county has attempted to head off this dilemma and raise awareness is by taking the teachers on discovery tours around Stephens County. “Twice a year, we put twenty-five school teachers on a bus, and we take them to the different manufacturing facilities, and we let them see what the manufacturing in Stephens County is really like. They go back to their classrooms and tell students what industry is available here and what those industries are looking for in employees,” says Hill. This strategy also encourages teachers to incorporate the skills that employers are looking for in their class work. For example, a math class included more teamwork projects, since collaboration is an essential skill in most industries.
In Stephens County, roughly one-third of the local tax digest comes from the manufacturing industry, and about a quarter of its labor force in engaged in manufacturing. “We appreciate the emphasis and the attention that our education and workforce partners afford to the manufacturing industry,” says Martin.