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Workforce Development Initiative Kicks Off

Workforce development is a top issue— if not the #1 issue at present—for the future success of our community and region. It impacts every aspect of our community, including individual workers, families, employers, prospective businesses and educational institutions.

Over the past year, the Toombs County Development Authority, along with business and industry partners and education system partners, has taken positive steps to better understand our community’s workforce continued from page

needs and develop a tangible plan.

The launch of the Greater Vidalia Workforce Development Strategy follows a community workforce study guided by the University of Georgia Carl Vinson Institute of Government. Rebecca Mc-Iver, Fiscal Analyst/State Services and Decision Support for the Institute, introduced the study and praised the community‘s “robust education and enthusiasm for the future.”

The study is being executed by a Workforce Strategy Steering Committee of 27 representatives from the Development Authority, the Greater Vidalia Chamber, area school systems, Southeastern Technical College (STC), Southeastern Early College and Career Academy (SECCA), and Toombs County Family Connection (TCFC). Also participating are area industry executives and business owners, including Chicken of the Sea, DOT Foods, Georgia Power, Memorial Health Meadows Hospital, Southern Nuclear, Hatch Nuclear Plant and Trane Technologies.

“Specifically, the strategy process identifies gaps, develops priorities and creates strategies for meeting the talent needs of existing industry and prospective employers, sets workforce development goals and tells the Toombs talent story, said Ann Owens, Toombs County Development Authority and Greater Vidalia Chamber Director of Community Development.

Over the span of three months, representatives of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government conducted industry visits, interviews with small business owners, members of the agriculture community and young professionals. Sessions were conducted at both SECCA and STC with students from diverse pathways and age groups in order to understand their needs and desires for a successful career in the region.

Workshops were conducted with the Steering Committee and, after identifying areas of short and long-term concerns to the area, the group established a vision for the future of workforce development: The Greater Vidalia area will be a leader in workforce development, enabling regional businesses and industries to thrive and the community to be a sweet place to live, work, and play.

A plan was developed based on four priorties: the Greater Vidalia Employment Fair; “This Girl Can” afterschool program; Greater Vidalia Teacher Externship Program; and YouScience in the Greater Vidalia Region. Some of these programs have already taken place or are soon to be underway.

At the Greater Vidalia Employment Fair on June 23, some 60 area businesses interacted with over 250 individuals looking for employment. Prospective workers were able to interview with these companies and work on resumes with qualified professionals in the STC computer lab.

The job fair is an existing program at STC but dovetailed with the workforce initiative. Another new community effort, “This Girl Can,” which is coordinated by TCFC and going into place this week, is also a perfect fit in the workforce strategy.

TCFC Director Paige Williamson spoke on the integration of the “This Girl Can” afterschool program into local schools. Through this program, young girls tour industries and get hands-on experience in fields that are not traditionally dominated by females, like welding. This pilot program is similar to a program of the same name in Glynn County and will be offered to 7th and 8th grade girls in Toombs County and Vidalia City schools.

“Direct experience is the highest form of knowing, and that is what this program thrives upon,” Williamson shared. “We have all the partners in place for this program to be absolutely amazing for our young people.”

STC’s Vice President of Student Affairs Barry Dotson also noted the success of the former Summer Educator Academy that was held at STC for several years. In conjunction with the Workforce Development Strategy, there are plans to initiate the Greater Vidalia Teacher Externship, which is similar to the Academy. Through the Teacher Externship, among other objectives, local educators will develop insight into what local industries and companies require in a rising workforce.

Toombs County Schools Superintendent Barry Waller spoke on You-Science, a program that allows students to discover and develop their interests in middle school and tailors an individualized graduation plan to facilitate the student’s workforce goals. “We as educators have the challenge of preparing our students for the future: to be the workforce and the next generation,” Waller said. “YouScience is a career-interest inventory continued from page

that helps guide students on their paths. It does not rigidly determine their futures but helps them in their vision for the future.”

The launch event afforded an opportunity to share additional good news in the workforce development arena, including efforts that are underway but are being managed and driven by alternate groups.

Debbie Evans, Vice President, Greater Vidalia Chmaber, shared information regarding the Chamber’s upcoming Business Solutions Summit event on September 23. Dee Ann Turner of Dee Ann Turner & Associates, LLC, and a 33-year veteran of Chickfil- A, Inc., will be the featured speaker. Every ticket includes a copy of Turner’s book, Bet on Talent.

Superintendent Waller explained that the local school systems have been actively working to prepare students for the workforce as much as they prepare students for college. “We have figured out how to get kids to college, but we are working on learning how to best prepare them for the workforce,” Waller explained.

He shared that the Toombs County Schools held a workforce development camp over the summer. The 17 students who participated in the camp were able to tour industries and get hands-on experience in various workforce settings and careers. This experience even led two students to decide on their future careers. The school system is also performing due diligence to establish a Heavy Equipment Operations pathway.

SECCA Board Chairman Don Betts spoke about the “Make It, Move It” program that allows students to meet representatives from a variety of companies, trades, and careers, and to actually get up-close looks at some area businesses through site visits.

The “Make It, Move It” pilot program got underway in August with 21 students. “This is just another tool we use to provide opportunities to our students,” Betts noted.

The current deficit in a regional workforce has reinforced the need to groom, recruit and train employees, starting with middle and high school students. “Strengthening our local workforce is going to require innovation—doing some things differently,” STC’s Vice President of Student Affairs Barry Dotson told attendees. “We are strengthening our relationship with our local boards of education.” Underlining the need for local workforce strategy, Dotson pointed to the employment dilemma created by COVID. “In January of 2020, who could have predicted in just three months that we would face a pandemic and workforce development situations we have never previously encountered?” Dotson noted that at the last meeting of the Steering Committee, area workforce deficits were at the top of the urgent needs list.

“Many local businesses have been unable to assume normal operations due to the lack of sufficient workforces,” Dotson explained. “It became obvious that our immediate priority was to help local businesses gain sufficient workforces.” Authority Executive Director and Chamber President Michele Johnson summarized the intent of the strategy. “I think above all, the one thing we want to do is to convey that all work is honorable,” she said. “There is value to every person and every job for our community.” If anyone is interested in aiding this workforce development strategy financially or through volunteer support, they can contact Johnson or Ann Owens at 912-537-4466.

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