Talent and workforce have long been key factors in the decision of businesses to locate or expand in a community. When I first started in economic development in the 1990s, I quickly learned that the mantra for site consultants was “location-location-location.”  However, as the years went on, the factor of “location” was surpassed by the community's availability of a skilled workforce. Today, no one can deny that a skilled workforce is essential for growth and development of an organization as well as its ability to survive when the market is down. Now, not only do companies rely on their employees’ skills but all businesses, whether planting peanuts or building the latest generation fighter jet, must have employees who possess the most technical skills and the capacity to adapt when change occurs.  

Since the Industrial Revolution, technology has improved the workplace, but it has also challenged us to move faster, deliver more immediately, and constantly qualify our people for the ever-changing job description that today’s New Georgia Economy has created. The latest forms of technology, such as XR, artificial intelligence and advanced robotics, offer unimaginable opportunity, but they come with a hidden cost. A massive skills gap. Consider that in 2017, a global consultancy estimated that 375-million workers, roughly 14% of the global workforce, would be needed to upskill or change jobs by 2030 just to stay relevant. Throw a global pandemic like COVID-19 into that equation and that gap has nearly tripled overnight.

So, what do we do to mitigate and close a gap that is exponentially growing due to the current events of today’s market? How do we solve a problem that has existed for decades and has recently been exacerbated by COVID-19? 

First, we must leverage the strength of our post-secondary educational institutions and create degree and certificate programs that can fill the existing skills gap between those in our unemployment lines and the jobs available to re-engage them into the workforce. Short-term certificates and degrees are essential to increasing both demand and competitiveness for human capital over automated technology. To survive the COVID-19 pandemic, companies are having to reinvent their business models, and this has created an even greater need to focus on the upskilling of talent. With more programming available in our institutions, individuals in our state must also take advantage of these opportunities. Education credentials translate to higher economic success, leading to greater upward mobility for families. 

Of course, we also need to address flaws in the current system that all too often prevent good students from moving forward. Too many students drop out due to payment demands of $900 or less and never return to complete their degrees. Targeted career guidance and financial assistance for those in need will strengthen our state’s ability to produce the adaptable and agile talent that drives innovation and growth. 

Looking even further into the future, we must reimagine our Pk-12 education delivery system. The post-COVID economy expedites the adoption of the New Georgia Economy spurring a rapid rise in automation, disruption, resiliency, sustainability, healthcare, and infrastructure jobs.  We need our students to be trained for careers in biotech, cyber security, online retail, financial services, and as-a-service sectors. By focusing on these industries and the skill sets required of them, we can harness the strength of our educational system to fill the retraining gap and employ hardworking Georgians in the job opportunities that exist both today and in the future.

We need innovation in the classroom, to spark the curiosity of our students and to ease the way for career transitions. Efforts like Cherokee County’s new Be Pro Be Proud initiative is just one example to fundamentally change an education system often too burdened by institutional divisions and tradition. 

Of course, those skills only matter if we can deliver the training. This is what makes last-mile broadband infrastructure imperative to our future. Last-mile broadband technology will reach our rural communities and deliver virtual options where they do not exist for PK-12 education.  With COVID-19 threatening the need for continued virtual training, connectivity in every community in Georgia is paramount to the continuation of a highly trained workforce of the future. We can no longer allow our rural communities to go unsupported in this area. Public and private investment is essential, and both government and business must come together to devise a solution for this critical need. Recent investments by Comcast, AT&T, Windstream, and Verizon are a great start and we look forward to working with local governments across the state to develop innovative partnerships and provide a service that is as important as clean water. 

During the next 5 to 6 years we will see 10,000 baby boomer retirees each day and over 39 million U.S. jobs lost to artificial intelligence. This means we have less than 5 years to reimagine education skills and delivery before we lose our competitive edge. That potential talent deficit will negatively impact our ability to produce the next generation of makers, doers, builders, growers, and inventors. 

Technology will never stop changing the way we do business and, even with a COVID-19 vaccine, the need for consistent training and development of people will always be important to our future. As we move forward to live and learn with a global pandemic in our midst, the Georgia Chamber will focus our efforts on solving a challenge not created by the pandemic but highlighted by it. On August 6, 2020 at 2:00PM, we will host our next virtual discussion on talent and higher education reopening strategies with the presidents from Fort Valley State, Georgia Southern and Kennesaw State Universities. Event details can be found at gachamber.com/events. We invite you to join us for this program and, together, help get Georgians back to work in new ways, with new skills, in the New Georgia Economy.

Chris Clark is president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

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