Bridging Skills Gaps with Cherokee Youth

By Mike Mullet, Ball Ground Resident

If you’ve ever needed a plumber, you probably learned two things. First, when you need a plumber, you usually need a plumber right away. Second, plumbers can be expensive, but you have no choice. You can’t fix the problem, and you can’t leave it un-fixed. Plumbers have a specific set of skills necessary to do specific work, and you must pay for those skills, because a plumber’s work is unique and valuable.

“Skilled professions—what we used to call skilled trades—are important, valuable, and often critical jobs. That’s the most important message I want students, parents, and everyone to understand,” says Misti Martin, president of the Cherokee Office of Economic Development (COED). “Skilled professionals keep our businesses, schools, hospitals, and workplaces running. Really, these professionals keep our communities functioning.” She and others are addressing the myth that skilled professions are merely jobs for people without college degrees. Not so, she says. Recent events bear her out.

In spring 2020, as Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and his colleagues in other states were issuing temporary shutdown orders in response to COVID-19, almost all the executive orders contained exemptions for critical infrastructure and essential business, which included healthcare obviously, but also energy, agriculture, transportation, information technology, communications, and water, among others.

“Take a closer look at any of those broad categories, and you’ll see that the truly essential workers are those who keep those industries running,” Misti says. “Lab technicians, pipefitters, linemen, welders, truck drivers, electronics and computer technicians—professionals who may be more likely to have had technical training rather than a college degree.”

Students and parents often ask whether skilled professionals can earn a decent living without a college degree. She has a ready answer for those questions too. “In the Atlanta area, the top ten percent of earners in plumbing make more than $71,000 a year,” says Misti. “The top ten percent of diesel technicians earn almost $70,000 a year, automation and robotics professionals earn more than $85,000, linemen more than $82,000, and computer programmers more than $130,000 a year. So yes, these jobs pay very well.”

As COED works with business and industry leaders to build a local workforce ready and able to support the continued growth of Cherokee county, the Be Pro Be Proud program promotes the critical importance of skilled professions and attracts young people to them.

Created in Arkansas in 2016 with the expectation that the program could be duplicated in other states, Be Pro Be Proud links students with local industries, employers, and training. Misti and the COED team were integral in bringing the program to Georgia.

“We started Be Pro Be Proud Georgia in Cherokee County with a plan to scale it regionally and statewide,” Misti explains. “This initiative is bigger than one county or one state; it is intended to dispel the myths about skilled professions.”

The centerpiece of the program is a nearly $300,000 mobile workshop that features stations devoted to several skilled professions that appeals directly to students who prefer hands-on learning. To date more than 3,350 students have toured the Be Pro Be Proud mobile workshop, according to COED.

“The mobile workshop brings interactive experiences to students coupled with learning about opportunities to find a career in the skilled professions and earn great money,” Misti explains. “In October we kicked off a tour at River Ridge High School in Woodstock and then spent a week at each of the six Cherokee high schools.” She reports a robust response.

Annie Axelsson, one of the students at River Ridge to tour the workshop, says she learned a great deal, which is what sponsors hope will be the case with every student. “Be Pro Be Proud was an extremely valuable experience for me,” Annie says. “It opened my eyes to all the careers available in the skilled workforce and showed me that I don’t have to go to a prestigious college to be successful in life.”

In addition to the students who are embracing the program, Cherokee business leaders have also gotten onboard. Be Pro Be Proud counts among its partners and sponsors the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia, Georgia Power, United Federal Logistics, and Cherokee By Choice, a public-private partnership among COED and local businesses that provided seed money to bring the program to Cherokee County.

[wonderplugin_carousel id=”2″]Another partner, Shottenkirk Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram in Canton, provided a Ram 4500 truck with a custom bed to pull the mobile workshop trailer, largely because of the importance of skilled professions to its business. General Manager David Booth has a keen understanding of the issues. “Skilled trades are one of the most important things we can support. Not all kids are destined for college,” says David. “It’s the type of people we look to hire for our service centers. Awareness of the types of jobs and careers that are available is very important, not only for my dealerships, but for other industries as well.”
David continues, “Most kids don’t realize that a lot of the skilled jobs are available and are not aware of the type of income they can earn. Many people providing skilled labor today are moving toward retirement age.”
The growth in skilled-profession jobs and the lack of people to fill those jobs work together to drive the need for more skilled professionals. All fifteen professions listed on the Be Pro Be Proud Georgia website are projected to have double-digit growth.

“The skills gap isn’t just a Georgia problem; it’s a national problem, and it is widening,” explains Misti. “Right now seventy-two percent of skilled trade workers are forty-five and older, edging toward retirement. More than eighty-two percent of manufacturers report a shortage in skilled production workers. Clearly, there is opportunity out there, more than ever.

Students and parents who want to learn more can visit the Be Pro Be Proud Georgia website and “join the movement” to be connected with training and job opportunities. COED reports that nearly one thousand people have already signed up to learn more about careers in skilled professions.

As someone who hires skilled professionals and provides a workplace where they can build a solid, satisfying, and well-paying career, Shottenkirk’s David Booth provides a knowledgeable last word: “The future of our country and the future of our workforce in skilled jobs are both on the line. This program will become the gold standard for what can be done when children get excited about these workforce opportunities.”