Greensboro News & Record

January 21, 1996

Schools Are Still Not Graduating People Smart Enough To Work

Elle Benoit

Copyright © 1996, Greensboro News & Record

The South is learning, finally, that it's not land or cheap labor that industry needs most, but smart workers who can only be produced by more intelligent schools.

Remember the episode two years ago when North Carolina government leaders were drooling at the chance to recruit the Mercedes-Benz production plant for Alamance County? And you know what has happened since: Alabama offered more financial perks to land Mercedes and now is darn near broke trying to figure out how to meet its obligations.

That is pretty much the way industrial recruitment - essential to the economic health of the state and region seeking growth and jobs - has been going. Every recruiter tries to out-scratch the other; shoot the incentive wad for short-term gain now and deal with the future later.

Well, the future is now. Industrial recruitment often has run amok of good judgment. The promises of cheap land, willing workers, ample water and sewer lines, airline service, and (although this is most often whispered) relatively cheap labor have left out one important ingredient: practical workplace needs and skills.

As with Alabama and Mercedes, once the industries are recruited, states and localities are at a loss because the job-skill needs and work-force talents were about as compatible as Jerry Falwell and Madonna.

Dave Phillips, N.C. secretary of commerce and the state's top job recruiter, concedes workplace- skills shortcomings with both existing and future businesses.

''We haven't always been selling the right thing,'' Phillips said. ''Maybe we've said enough about airports and talked too much just about land. We need to make plans for what the businesses really need to sell our workforce - skills.''

That's a refreshing change. But the state or local communities are still a long way from where they need to be because this kind of thinking has really just begun. Guilford County is ahead of the curve compared to most of the state, but even here the workplace approach is still in its infancy.

''There is still a great divide between what the schools are teaching and what the businesses need,'' said Kenny Moore, president of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, a 12-county nonprofit economic and educational advancement organization, headquartered in Greensboro. ''The education community and the business community now realize that.'' PTP is working as a catalyst to promote job skills training among local schools and businesses.

A survey of PTP business members recently showed the stark reality of needs. The members listed education as the No. 1 need; tax relief was 15th in importance. Businesses seem willing to pay present tax levels if they can be assured the money is being used wisely. The record shows that hasn't always been the case.

At Guilford Technical Community College, a staggering 65 percent of the full- time students must take one or more remedial courses just to meet minimum academic standards. And these are students with high school diplomas, not dropouts.

At American Express customer service headquarters near the airport, where 2,500 people work, Don Dixon, regional director of facilities and operations, says his human resources staff routinely plows through 10 applicants for every one with qualifications to work there. Those nine out of 10 who are rejected are products of area public school systems.

The Greensboro Development Corporation, made up of chief executive offices of some 100 businesses in the city, has made job-skills training its top goal for 1996, not only in words, but also in dollars, through grants and scholarships to assist in producing academic programs that better fit workplace needs and help students learn essential skills. At a recent GDC membership meeting where changing workplace needs was the topic, business leader after business leader lamented the shortage of local skilled labor to meet current high-technology needs.

The GDC goal is to provide scholarships worth $ 1,000 each to help local manufacturers cover the cost of training workers to fit workplace needs. Unless local schools can turn out workers with skills, businesses will have to grow their own through special training programs.

American Express' Dixon, program chairman of the Governor's Workplace Preparedness Commission, cites the statewide need as well as his own company's problems with skilled labor shortages. ''We're looking at what the needs are,'' Dixon said of the state commission, ''in an effort to integrate training programs with what the schools are offering.'' The need is obvious statewide, Dixon said, based on the views of the 40 business members of the group.

At American Express, Dixon has arranged with the Guilford school system and GTCC to create an apprenticeship program for prospective employees. Twenty high school students will begin the program this year.

If students maintain a 2.5 grade point average and don't miss more than three (unexcused) days during the school year, they're eligible for the apprenticeship. They will work 15 hours a week at entry-level pay during their senior year and, if performance is acceptable, American Express will pay their two-year tuition at GTCC while they work 20 hours a week while obtaining a degree. Plans are to expand the apprenticeship program to include 20 GTCC students next year.

The purpose, Dixon said, is to produce workers with essential skills. The plan is expensive, but less so than the revolving door of high turnover and training on the job. If the program works as well as hoped, expect it to be tried at other local businesses. That's essentially what the GDC effort is intended to do.

It's unfortunate that it has come to this. But at least now we realize it and are working toward solutions. Late, in this case, is better than not at all.

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Copyright ©1996, Greensboro News & Record.

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