Opinion

Tech education can fill need for skilled workers

The conclusion of the Southern Governors Association meeting in Asheville, N.C., coincided -- well, almost -- with the debut of Columbus Technical College’s new semester curriculum. One has nothing to do with the other, except that the solution to a problem under discussion in Asheville is most likely to be found at institutions like this one in Columbus.

Among the things governors discussed was a serious shortage of workers in jobs that require postsecondary-level skills but not an expensive four-year college degree. Career skills such as computer tech support, medical technology, tool and die, electrical expertise and automotive technology are in demand, even as unemployment hovers at double digits and college graduates -- more than a few of them out of work -- are saddled with heavy loans to pay off.

The shortage of workers qualified to perform what are commonly and perhaps inaccurately called “middle-skills” jobs is both a productivity problem and an employment problem: There are people who need jobs and there are jobs that need people, and here in the Southeast they’re not getting matched up.

The frustrating part is that many of these are high-paying jobs, with advancement and good earning potential, for which people can get the necessary education at very affordable technical colleges like Columbus Tech.

“What we are calling middle skills can actually be high-level skills,” host Gov. Beverly Perdue of North Carolina said to her fellow governors Sunday, “with some jobs paying $50 an hour.”

James Wiseman of Toyota, a panelist at the Sunday session sponsored by the National Skills Coalition, said the automaker is having a hard time finding qualified workers for jobs that sometimes pay $50,000-$75,000 a year. This in a region where the average yearly pay for all full-time jobs is about $38,900.

Surely Wiseman’s observation should have resonance in an area where another major automaker has dramatically changed the employment prospects for thousands.

Under the circumstances, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the Technical College System of Georgia, with 25 affiliated institutions including Columbus Tech, has seen its enrollment swell by almost one-third just since 2008, from about 146,000 students to more than 191,000 last year. Though the semester curriculum at Columbus Technical College has caused some costs to increase, students still pay just $75 per credit hour. High school students who qualify for the HOPE scholarship can use that fund in Georgia’s technical colleges.

The National Skills Coalition report under discussion last week in Asheville estimates that more than half of all jobs in the South require postsecondary education, while just 43 percent of job seekers meet qualifications for those careers. Jobs requiring technical skills dominate the top 10 hardest to fill.

This is a case of a demand and an opportunity that need to get better acquainted.

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