the pipeline effect

Educational resources attracting new business to Coweta

by Clay Neely


Photo by Bob Shapiro Photography

With many local industries expanding and new companies now calling Coweta County home, it’s no secret why our community is experiencing such a unique period of economic growth.

According to a recent article in Development Magazine, the availability of skilled labor was ranked as the number one factor in determining site selection for new businesses.

Having a skilled workforce in a community isn’t simply luck of the draw – it’s a carefully constructed gameplan of positioning an area for success.

This gameplan has a name and is known as the “pipeline” approach. In order for a community to produce the skilled labor that these companies demand, the pipeline must stretch into the local school system, placing an emphasis on the approach and culture.

According to Mark Whitlock, CEO of the Central Educational Center, most communities don’t have such an approach.

“The CEC is that ‘pipeline’ that connects the community to provide a different and more focused approach to developing skilled labor by the age of 18,” Whitlock said. “It is an approach largely left behind by America during the last 40 years. However, it is an approach that highly competitive economies have adopted worldwide in countries like Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. We must compete with these countries for investment and jobs.”

Fifteen years ago, Coweta business leaders decided to challenge the local school system in order to develop the pipeline approach.

“We heard from our employers that the workplace was changing,” said Whitlock. “They needed young people who ready-to-work in that environment just out of high school and couldn’t wait until they become adults.”

The local school system challenged local business and West Georgia Technical College to stay engaged and to create new and innovative ways that high schoolers could reach the new 21st century workforce goal.

Among other actions, local businesses have created many internships (411 this past year with 237 different employer sites) in which businesses have acknowledged that they are great teachers for our young people.

WGTC has largely led the state in developing career-oriented dual enrollment programs that lead to credentials understood by employers in critical areas such as welding, nurse aid, culinary arts, dental assisting and others.

“Most communities can’t even have a conversation as candid as the one in Coweta,” Whitlock said.

Yokogawa recently broke ground on their new 60,000-square-foot expansion that will employ 215 new workers. This, too, was not simply luck of the draw.

“The decision for the expansion in Coweta was quite simple,” said Richard Westerfield, vice president of sourcing and manufacturing with Yokogawa Corporation of America. “We have great employees, great resources and the CEC is the best thing we’ve ever done in the school system. I think the recent announcements from Niagara Bottling have proven this to be true.”

However, while business and education make logical partners, Westerfield feels that the traditional path of high school to a four-year degree is not necessarily outdated, it simply isn’t the only option for every high school graduate.

Both Westerfield and Whitlock fully endorse the opportunities that local industries have provided to develop career-oriented dual enrollment programs.

“We offer quite a bit of hands-on training. We also provide the opportunity for employees to attend school at West Georgia Technical College,” Westerfield said. “We have a few employees that get off at 2:30 in the afternoon to attend classes over there and will soon wind up with a two-year degree.”

“While it may take a little longer to finish, you’re developing yourself,” Westerfield said. “The average debt for a four-year college student is around $33,000 dollars. If you come to work here, it might take six years to get your degree but you’ll be debt free. Having an organization like ours pay for your education is clearly the better situation in the long run.”

During the recent Manufacturing Day events at West Georgia Technical College, both employers and educators met in order to address the growing need of skilled labor. The primary objective was to introduce a dialogue among teachers and students to demonstrate the modern needs of the modern workplace.

As modern manufacturing has become a very specialized field, the skills necessary in order for employers to keep a deep talent bench is proving to be somewhat difficult.

While these potential employers aren’t seeing enough qualified candidates, they’re simply not seeing enough of them to begin with and that’s what is proving to be very challenging for recruitment.

Westerfield feels that Manufacturing Day is definitely a step in the right direction.

“We’d like to see more career counselors at the high school level to consider the opportunities that are available in manufacturing,” Westerfield said. “Companies like ours would love for them to reach out to us.”

Westerfield felt that Manufacturing Day is a step in the right direction.

Just recently, Greg Wright, president of the Coweta County Development Authority, met with a company that is considering several locations for its new manufacturing facility.

One of the key decision factors for the company will be its ability to hire welders, which is a highly sought-after skill in many parts of the country.

“With the partnership between Central Educational Center and West Georgia Technical College, 51 local high school students earned welding certifications through West Georgia Technical College in basic shielded arc welding, advanced shielded metal arc welding and gas metal arc welding,” Wright said. “These are real numbers that help demonstrate to a company that we take technical education very seriously in Coweta County and that, through a partnership with these institutions, companies have a farm team of future employees with the job skills that they need.”

While Coweta County’s current vacancy rate for industrial space hovers around two percent, Whitlock feels that the CEC is vital to the economic growth in the Coweta community.

“The creation and development of CEC signals that this community, among all its competitors, has been willing to bring everyone to that table and pioneer a solution to what all agreed was or is a problem,” Whitlock said.

“The problem won’t go away as the economy continues to sharpen competition among various entities – national, state and local,” said Whitlock. “But this community, among every other one in Georgia, was first to create a platform from which we can keep improving to remain competitive.”

Georgia has now adopted the Coweta CEC model as a statewide initiative, known as the “College and Career Academy Initiative” and 29 other communities are at work trying to copy what Coweta created.

“Communities in other states are similarly at work. CEC has hosted visits from well over 500 groups that represent most states and some 16 other nations,” Whitlock said. “That is all because Coweta has been willing to get together to power ahead.”

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