Inaugural Critical Issues in the Florida Times-Union

October 5, 2012

Southeast Georgia job applicants hurt by drugs, criminal background checks

by Terry Dickson

for the Florida Times Union – Jacksonville

Job applicants in Southeast Georgia typically fail the two tests that don’t require any study and should be the easiest: the drug screen and criminal background check, business executives said Wednesday.

Randal Morris, a spokesman for Brunswick Cellulose, and Gary Colberg, CEO of Southeast Georgia Health System, told dozens of business owners that they also face other issues in keeping a qualified work force. They, and Patricia Pridemore, executive director of the Governor’s Office on Workforce Development, spoke Wednesday at the Critical Issues Forum at College of Costal Georgia, sponsored by the law firm HunterMaclean.

Nearing its 75th anniversary, Brunswick Cellulose needs two dozen new employees each year to maintain its workforce of 600, Morris said.

Koch Industries Inc. has spent $500 million to introduce new technology to keep the giant pulp plant competitive in the long term, Morris said, but workforce challenges remain.

Applicants must have a high school diploma, be willing to arrive on time and work physically demanding jobs, sometimes in close quarters and around chemicals, Morris said.

Morris said education is the key to maintaining the workforce.

“We used to be a town with a college. We’re on the way to identifying ourselves as a college town with two colleges,’’ he said.

Pipeline for workers

The former community college is now four-year College of Coastal Georgia, and Altamaha Technical has a satellite campus at the Glynn County School Board’s Golden Isles Career Academy. The latter is a program of the two county high schools.

“We need to build Altamaha Tech a campus in Glynn County,’’ Morris said.

The local education system should become a pipeline to provide workers to local industry, he said.

For his part, Colberg detailed the needs of Southeast Georgia Health System that has nearly 100 employed physicians, six care centers and 2,278 workers.

Although the job vacancy rate there is higher than the state average for nurses, the most daunting task is filling jobs that require some of the same skills as industry, Colberg said.

“We need plumbers, we need electricians, we need welders,’’ Colberg said. “When it comes down to how the place is heated, cooled and maintained, we have a shortage,’’ he said.

He also said the hospital needs workers skilled in information technology so that it can provide data correctly and on time so it can get reimbursed from insurance companies and government health programs.

There is also a need to educate young people on how to interview, he said.

“How do you dress? How do you act?’’ he said.

Some personal habits are also getting in the way of many people’s employment, Colberg said.

“We know you like to drink, but don’t drink so much,’’ he said. “You probably won’t be able to work for anyone if you smoke in the future.’’

Like Morris, Colberg said, “It amazes me when people can’t pass the drug test or the criminal background check.”

The job for Georgia, Pridemore said, is to get out the word that a working in a craft is not a bad job.

“Spread the word that skill trade jobs are good jobs,’’ that pay 27 percent more than the average Georgia worker earns, she said.

Starts with parents

Georgia had worked for years telling young people they need four-year degrees only to find that resulted in shortages of workers in manufacturing and other jobs, Pridemore said.

It starts with parents who, surveys show, don’t believe their children will have the earning capacity in skills jobs or that the jobs are as safe or healthy as those filled by college graduates, she said.

HunterMaclean, which is Georgia’s largest legal firm outside Atlanta, also sponsored a similar forum recently in Savannah as a community service

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