Innovative workforce strategy is key to Atlanta’s economic recovery

By Guest Columnist DEBORAH SCOTT, founder of Trade-Up, a national model for prep-apprenticeship and workforce development

Atlanta is still struggling to recover from the stubborn recession that has crippled the regional economy, devastated residential and commercial real estate and kept unemployment at, or near double-digit levels. The challenge this poses for the region can hardly be overstated.

Real estate and related industries, such as construction, are about 25 percent of Atlanta’s economy. Without a recovery in that sector, the region will likely limp along for years, if not decades — a prospect that every citizen and stakeholder should find unacceptable.

But within this gloomy scenario, things are not entirely what they appear to be.

Atlanta built its current physical character on aggressive new construction, impressive skyscrapers and vast subdivisions rising from raw earth. Today’s market conditions and demographic trends may not support significant building of new structures for some time.

Yet the state construction industry is expecting over 80,000 job openings and is forecasting widespread shortages of skilled trade and craft workers through 2016.

Deborah Scott

What gives?

Like other aspects of our rapidly transforming economy, labor markets are in transition. The average age of construction trade workers is somewhere in the mid 50’s.

Over the next few years, the industry will be hit hard by mass retirements. Our national bias of pushing everyone toward four-year college degrees has resulted in a near-empty pipeline of trained replacements to fill these critically important skill sets.

The irony is that while the current recession has unemployment rates in construction fields at depressingly high levels, conditions are emerging that may create shortages of skilled construction workers in the near future!

That is why we founded Trade-Up, a pre-apprenticeship program that grooms residents of low-wealth Atlanta neighborhoods to train in the building trades and allied industries. Participants are typically long-term unemployed.

They can be inexperienced youth or mature people seeking new careers — women, veterans and individuals who have had brushes with the criminal justice system. They are screened for educational deficiencies and provided GED support, offered a range of 21 skill options, certified in OSHA safety and CPR. They leave the program with everything they need to be “ready to work,” including hard hats and steel toe boots.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs requiring apprenticeships and some kind of on-the-job training will be among the fastest growing employment categories for the remainder of this decade. Trade-Up targets underserved segments because to be competitive in a global economy, Atlanta and the nation need to tap all the human resources and talents available.

This isn’t just a matter of “doing the right thing.” It is a business and economic imperative.

Thanks to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s visionary commitment to make Atlanta a top 10 city for sustainable urban living, Trade-Up can serve as a ready pipeline for large-scale efforts to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency.

The city’s own $60 million effort to make government buildings energy efficient, the Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge, and the national Emerald Cities program are part of a collaborative effort to retrofit tens of millions of square feet of commercial space, kick starting the construction industry without building a single new structure. The building trades can thrive simply by making the buildings we already have more operationally efficient.

The retrofit initiative—big, bold, imaginative, and economically sound—represents Atlanta at its best. And it offers the opportunity to address historic disparities that have continued to dog the region despite its reputation for being “too busy to hate.”

Focusing on real, market-driven opportunities for high-skill employment in emerging industries such as energy efficiency can anticipate and help defuse Atlanta’s next looming workforce challenge—the demographic crisis.

Nimble, innovative strategies to deal with emerging workforce challenges will be a key to Atlanta’s future prosperity. And with programs like Trade-Up, it can respond in ways that are equitable, utilizing wasted and overlooked talent, while simultaneously greening our city and ensuring its place among tomorrow’s globally competitive urban metro areas.

In addition to founding Trade Up, Deborah Scott is executive director of Stand Up, an organization involved in neighborhood revitalization and environmentally-oriented community development. For more information on both organizations, please visit: www.georgiastandup.org and www.gatradeup.org.

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