Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) Commissioner Mark Butler met with the Thomaston-Upson Rotary Club Tuesday to discuss the current state of employment in Georgia, as well as the many programs the GDOL is bringing about to help strengthen the workforce. He noted that while unemployment numbers remain high, the private sector is beginning to see growth that it has not seen in a very long time.
“Even though over the last few months we have seen the (unemployment) rate creep up, it is not necessarily a bad thing,” said Butler. “Last month we saw the private sector pick up almost 16,000 jobs in one month and for that time period, that is a big pick up in jobs.”
Butler also noted that many of the jobs that have been eliminated as of late have come from government, specifically local governments and federal government contractors. However, despite a few losses, he is encouraged by the growth that has been seen in the area that was hit the hardest throughout the recession: construction; which according to Butler helped lead to the downfall of in the areas of manufacturing, retail sales and financial institutions. However, he stated that 4,000 jobs have been added in the construction sector in the last month and with an increase there, it could lead to other sectors seeing a pick up as well.
“Last month’s growth marks the fifth month in a row that we have had over the year job growth in construction, something that has not happened since the late 90s,” said Butler. “Also, last month’s job growth was the largest job growth and the best month since 1996 when the Olympics were in Georgia, so that should tell you something. That is a good sign, but we still have a long way to go; somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 jobs needed to get us back to pre-recession levels, but we are making that progress.”
He continued stating that there are jobs available all over Georgia, but the problem we are seeing right now is a skills gap; many people are not qualified to do the jobs that are available. He noted that many of the companies that have survived during these tough economic times and the new ones that have opened are using new processes, new equipment and new technology; leaving the people who were once employed in those industries without the right skills to go back to work. Butler noted that one of the biggest tools that Georgia has in the war of economic development are its’ technical schools and the programs they offer.
“When it comes to the skills gaps, it is going to take a little while to get things back going, but we have the infrastructure in place to make it happen.”
However, one aspect Butler stated they were not expecting to see is a gap in “soft skills,” things such as work ethic, being on time for work, dressing appropriately, politeness. He noted that while he was speaking to another group, one person yelled out that in her day they called those manners and he agreed. Statistically, 69 percent of all first time hires lose their job due to a lack of soft skills and that is something that Butler wants to change.
One way the GDOL is working to counteract this is through a program called Georgia Best, which works with high school seniors. The students are taught soft skills in the classroom and then are graded based on observation throughout the year where they get points for things such as being on time, being respectful, dressing appropriately and proper use of social media. At the end of the year if they have accumulated enough points then they will be certified as Georgia Best by the GDOL. Butler noted that last year there were 8,500 students participating in the program which has grown tremendously in the year and a half that it has been in place. He stated that of those students, 59 percent have been certified which he actually feels is a good thing because it shows that the schools are not just giving out certificates to those who do not deserve them and even those who do not receive one are being exposed to the skills.
The program has received some criticism, with people saying that is not the government’s job to teach those skills, they are something that should be learned at home. Butler does not disagree that they should be taught at home first, but he is more concerned that they are not.
“This is an economic development issue and we are going to do something about it; because you can have great incentives to bring companies to your state and great locations, but if you do not have the proper work force to make that company successful, then none of the rest matters,” stated Butler. “I do not view my office as the unemployment office. I view it as the employment office and the best way to get folks off of unemployment is to give them the skills to be re-employed and that is what we are about.”