Working together for a work force

The wrong foot former Gov. Roy Barnes’ education reform effort got off on was the new governor putting together a group of business leaders to tell educators how lousy a job they were doing.

That wasn’t the impression Barnes was trying to create, of course, nor was it the attitude of the business people themselves, most of whom went into the process thinking of it as a collaborative effort with teachers and administrators to best meet the needs of Georgia’s future. But somehow it came out of the blocks all wrong: Barnes’ "no excuses" rhetoric sounded punitive, educators went on the defensive, and the whole thing never really recovered.

The "Skills Gap Survey" now under way involving local businesses and local school systems sounds like the kind of process it should have been. Under the coordination of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, business leaders and educators are working together to identify current work force needs and anticipate future ones, and to make the curriculum changes that will best prepare our students to step into the work force now and in the years to come.

As reported by staff writer Chuck Williams on Monday, the data participants have been and are still collecting will be disseminated and analyzed this December at the second annual Bridge the Gap Conference of education and business leaders at Callaway Gardens. Columbus Bank and Trust Co. President Steve Melton heads the survey committee, and one of the goals of the process is for business people and educators to maintain a regular communication network about work skills.

There are ways this survey could be more complete, its coordinators acknowledge. For one thing, it could use more input from small businesses, says the chamber’s Janeen Tucker: "I can see why some might think it does not apply to them — because they may not be a massive employer. But the small business jobs add up." Indeed, most of the job creation in the economy is still by small business.

Tucker also said the survey could use more information from manufacturing and defense-related companies, as well as more from public safety jobs, all of which makes sense for this area. Melton said the process also needs more input from mid-level managers, the ones who do the hiring and firing: "They are the people who best understand the issues."

Educators want to cultivate the best future workers they possibly can, and the health of the economy depends on their success. Business, public education and the rest of the citizenry should be natural allies in that process.

--Dusty Nix, for the editorial board