Locally powered, locally staffed: Workforce for economic development

For a business to set up shop or expand, it needs a ready pool of people to do the jobs that need to be done. Public power communities are stepping up to develop training and education programs to help residents learn the skills needed to find local employment. In turn, this focus helps lower the local unemployment rate and encourages businesses from all over the country — and even the world — to take root in these communities.

Creating a Talent Pipeline

For 40 years, Troup County, located in central Georgia close to the Alabama state line, has successfully attracted big businesses and corporations. These businesses bring thousands of jobs to the community and provide employment opportunities to the residents of neighboring public power communities LaGrange, West Point, and Hogansville.

Though the county had ample land for development, it lacked a pipeline of skilled potential employees. “Seven to eight years ago, the leadership of LaGrange, West Point, Hogansville, and Troup County recognized we had been successful at attracting industries and jobs, but we had a workforce issue,” said LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton. “We needed to attract new people to move to our community or do a better job of educating kids in our community about the opportunities in manufacturing. We decided to do both.”

The cities stepped into action to work with area schools to help develop employable skills in local students from the elementary school to college level.

The community leaders reached out to Kia Motors, which built a manufacturing facility in West Point in 2006. Kia brought nearly 15,000 job opportunities to the area — which has less than 40,000 residents in all three cities — to become the largest employer in the county.

Kia and other community stakeholders worked together to create the THINC College & Career Academy, which was designed to supplement the high school curriculum and allow students to explore local career pathways.

THINC opened in 2015 and is nearly at capacity with approximately 600 students enrolled. Participation is voluntary and open to all 3,000 students in Troup County schools. Most students are upperclassmen in high school, but more middle schoolers are beginning to show interest.

Students at THINC choose from six pathways that are directly applicable to local job opportunities. Pathways include health science, mechatronics, STEM, energy, business, and marketing. A new international business pathway, which will prepare students to work for international companies located in Troup County, is in pilot. The curriculum in each pathway includes classroom time as well as work-based learning, similar to an apprenticeship with local businesses.

“It’s not a traditional disciplinary approach to learning. Students aren't just learning mathematics in the abstract or language arts. They are in the classroom setting and can apply that learning. Students today find that very rewarding,” Thornton said. “THINC students are an impressive bunch of kids. Some will go to college, some will go to a technical college, and some might start work directly out of high school.”

Thornton touts the academy as a true example of a community-based initiative. “Before we developed final plans for this, we had a community meeting with 108 people in attendance that was organized by the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce,” he said. “Then, we created committees to work on tasks like fundraising, organization and getting the charter approved by the state.”

To get the academy up and running, the state of Georgia committed $3 million, Kia provided $3 million, and the community raised the additional funds needed to create the academy and prepare the technical college in which it’s housed.

The academy functions as a charter school, so it receives the full-time student formula funding of traditional public schools. However, that money does not cover many aspects of education at the academy, so funding is supplemented by grants from industry partners including Kia, and by allocations from the cities and county. THINC has received wide support from the communities’ businesses as well. Support comes in many forms, through grants, internships, apprenticeships, and job opportunities for graduates.

“It’s truly been a public-private partnership where communities came together to cobble the resources necessary to build up our workforce,” Thornton said.

Support for local job opportunities goes beyond THINC. Troup County recently began a new model of education that emphasizes how learning can be applied to a career pathway. LaGrange started an industrial fellowship for teachers in the public school system to visit local industries and manufacturers to better understand the opportunities available.

“Many teachers went to a traditional four-year liberal arts college and then went right into the education field after graduation, so they have not had direct contact with an industry or manufacturer,” said Thornton. “[The fellowship] gives them insight they can give to students who are interested in manufacturing opportunities.”

Thornton expects the momentum to continue and THINC to expand as more students show interest. He also expects the expansion of industry to continue in Troup County, improving the local economy and job prospects for residents.

And companies have noticed. Century Tire, a Chinese tire manufacturer, is breaking ground on a new facility in the spring. Other businesses are choosing to expand operations in Troup County. Duracell has operated in the area for 35 years and recently announced plans to close a facility in another location to expand its LaGrange facility.

“They see the value of this pipeline. It’s soothing for industries to know that the community cares enough about the industries to not just attract them but to look for ways to sustain them,” Thornton said. “It’s always a fear of an industry that a community will roll out the red carpet during announcement but pull it up as soon as they get there.”

Building Skills

For years, rural Nash and Edgecombe counties in eastern North Carolina were known for little more than agriculture. Today, the counties are home to a robust industrial economy that’s unlike most rural areas. 

The rise in industry is due to efforts by the Carolinas Gateway Partnership, a public-private industrial recruitment agency that was started 25 years ago to create investment and workforce development opportunities in the 18 cities, towns, and municipalities that comprise Nash and Edgecombe counties.

The partnership was developed in part to address the area’s high unemployment rate, which has been as high as 12 percent and currently is at 6 percent, higher than the state’s average of 4 percent. “We’re finding new jobs for people in our communities,” said Norris Tolson, the partnership’s CEO and president.

To recruit companies, the Carolinas Gateway Partnership has taken steps to make the area more attractive to potential investors. Being 100 percent funded by the local municipalities, the Carolinas Gateway Partnership owns and controls 5,000 acres of land available to companies for development and has 110 private investors that help leverage incentive funds to attract new industry. It works with local utilities to ensure natural gas, electricity, water, and sewer services are available to all potential sites.

But no company will move to a new area without the security of a skilled local workforce. North Carolina has one of the oldest and most robust community college systems in the country —there’s a school located within 50 miles of every citizen. Thirty years ago, North Carolina implemented company-specific skills training in its community colleges to help students gain the skills for employment in their communities.

In Nash and Edgecombe counties, there are approximately 60,000 potential employees who want a new or better job, according to Tolson. To help community members find those jobs, the Carolinas Gateway Partnership created a coalition of eight community colleges to get training programs up and running.

The curriculum focuses on developing skills that are directly applicable to available jobs — from mechanical and analytical skills to the expertise needed to work in a highly roboticized environment. It also focuses on soft skills to interview for jobs and work with a team.

The Carolinas Gateway Partnership is building a 32,000-square-foot training facility that is adjunct to a community college and two miles from the future site of a tire manufacturer’s facility. The $700 million facility is owned by a Chinese tire company and expected to provide 800 jobs.

The tire company isn’t the only employer coming to town. This year, construction will start on a large distribution facility that will employ approximately 150 people and on a CSX Transportation railroad that will provide dozens of jobs.

To fill these jobs, it’s not enough to just get the educational facilities on board. The partnership also is marketing to residents to let them know about the jobs in the area and how they can develop skills to make themselves more employable.

With land available, partnerships for infrastructure, and an educated and skilled workforce, the Carolinas Gateway Partnership is well prepared. It has two site consultants that work to recruit industries including food processing, logistics, healthcare, and information technology companies.

The efforts have paid off. In the last 10 months, Tolson said the area has landed $1 billion in new investment and 2,500 jobs. And the jobs are high quality, with the starting pay for jobs at the tire plant reported to be $56,000 per year plus benefits, which is significantly higher than the county average of $39,000 per year.

Promoting Utility Jobs

Nearly 30 percent of employees at Austin Energy in Texas will be eligible to retire in the next seven years. As a result, the 125-year-old public power utility understands the need to get involved in its community to educate residents about employment opportunities related to energy. And with approximately 1,700 employees, there are many opportunities.

To raise awareness about energy and to educate its residents, Austin Energy focuses on the school system. Two years ago, it launched an energy and education program with eight school districts in its service territory. As part of that program, representatives visit schools to talk about the benefits of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Austin Energy has a full-time employee who visits elementary, middle, and high schools to talk about safety and how electricity is generated, transmitted, and delivered. It recently launched electric vehicle charging stations at four schools and helped develop a curriculum about electric vehicle charging.

“More than 38 percent of the resources that serve our customers come from renewables,” said Debbie Kimberly, vice president of customer energy solutions and corporate communications. “Our goal is to have 65 percent served by renewables by 2027.” That means many job opportunities related to renewable energy sources.

“When you look at students these days, they genuinely care about the environment. They are very thoughtful and they are the leaders of tomorrow,” Kimberly said. “Students of all ages have a unique passion and level of thoughtfulness; they aren't motivated by earning the most money but by wanting to make a difference in society.”

The utility also is a sponsor of the Austin Energy Regional Science Festival that attracts elementary, middle, and high school competitors from schools in 12 counties in central Texas. Representatives from Austin Energy serve as judges.

These efforts to involve students help the utility not only plant seeds to develop the next generation of employees, but also to deliver on its brand promise to be customer-driven and community-focused.

“We want to represent our community, so we make efforts to make sure we’re reflective of the community we serve,” said human resources manager Cindy Steffen. “Being at schools and community events helps us create brand awareness, and market and talk about the great things we do.”

Some of those students might even grow up to be part of Austin Energy’s summer internship program. The program attracts college-age students, with many coming from nearby colleges and universities. The program is competitive, with the utility receiving approximately 1,000 applications but only accepting 20 to 25 interns.

The utility also taps into Texas’ network of veterans. With Fort Hood, Camp Mabry, the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Center and Texas National Guard nearby, there are many local skilled veterans and retiring military personnel entering the civilian workforce.

“One area we have a real opportunity in is to increase and promote the hiring of veterans who have great backgrounds of science and technology,” Kimberly said. The city of Austin has a program that encourages companies to hire veterans, and the utility follows that lead.

Austin Energy participates in as many community events as possible to raise awareness about energy and the available jobs. For example, it attends the tree lighting ceremony in Austin’s Zilker Metropolitan Park. At those types of events, representatives from the utility talk to residents about the types of jobs available and how to apply for those opportunities.

“We really want Austin Energy to be an employer of choice. Not just because we’re Austin Energy, but because we have great things, innovative ideas, and are on the leading edge for technology,” said Steffen. “We want the best and brightest talent to continue leading Austin Energy into the future of where energy is going. We have that talent locally and in Texas, and we will continue to work hard to find the best and the brightest.”