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Wednesday, October 26, 2011 - 12:13pm

Schools Struggle To Supply Manufacturers

Georgia policy makers say, they want to create good, high-paying jobs in manufacturing and logistics.

But many of those jobs already exist.

They're going unfilled because Georgians lack the skills to do them.

The disconnect is costing Georgia businesses.

JCB is the kind of company Georgia wants to grow and retain.

At the British firm's North American headquaters near Savannah, steel comes in at one end and comes out another as heavy equipment for construction.

President and CEO John Patterson says, when the recession hit, battering the housing market, he had a choice to make.

"We either close this plant or do we reinvent ourselves?" Patterson says. "And the reinvention of this particular facility has come about because of this new product."

The savior of about 600 jobs is called a skid steer.

It looks like a little bulldozer.

And it's not only saved the plant, it's boosted employment.

But not as much as it could.

Patterson points to problems at nearly every stop on the factory line.

He can't find skilled workers, like welders.

"This is a good example of a robot welder," Patterson says, as fire flickers inside a beast of a machine doing the job of five-welders. "If I could find five welders, I would have avoided a half-million-dollar investment in a robot."

Further down, rows of skid steers sit unfinished because Patterson can't find assemblers.

And it's not just technical skills.

JCB recently interviewed 800 and 450 -- more than half -- couldn't pass a drug screen.

So, he's paying overtime and trainers.

"I do not have this problem in India," Patterson says. "I don't have this problem in Brazil or indeed China."

And JCB isn't alone.

A recent Manpower USA survey found 52% of American employers are having trouble finding workers despite 14 million people unemployed.

Manufacturing expert Don Sabbarese of Kennesaw State University blames policy makers.

"I think we need to look at our abilities to educate people," Sabbarese says.

Georgia's technical colleges are straining to meet employer needs.

At Savannah Technical College, fire lights up air smelling of hot metal.

And welding away behind protective plastic barrier, student Morgan Williams' says, she's aiming for one of Patteron's unfilled jobs.

"My department head really pushed me and showed me my potential of doing industrial welding and JCB is hiring," Williams says. "So, I'm going to prove to them that women can do it."

Williams is one of 119 welding majors at Savannah Tech.

The college has expanded some in-demand programs.

Still, its overall budget is down 14% in three years.

The college's president says, some students dropped out after changes to the state-funded HOPE scholarship.

Still, to blame only policy makers would miss a point many workforce professionals are making.

Cindy Landolt of Coastal Workforce Services grants more than $3 million a year in federal aid to train workers.

"Individuals are not necessarily focusing on those types of positions considered maybe a little bit more blue-collar," Landolt says.

Landolt says, she tries to guide people to in-demand professions, but in the end, it's their chioce and many say "no" to manual labor.

She'd like to get a message to middle and high school students:

"Everything isn't a four year degree from a state university," Landolt says. "You can get very, very well-paying jobs, with benefits, that will help you raise your family with a little bit of some hands-on work."

Meanwhile, JCB has taken out ads in Florida and Michigan to attract workers to Georgia.

Since Orlando Montoya visited Savannah Tech, student Morgan Williams says, she got the job at JCB.

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