The economy may be beginning to bounce back, but it’ll take more than just new businesses and industries moving to Dalton to shrink the area’s jobless rate, local officials say.
That’s according to several local business leaders and educators who say the Dalton area, like the rest of the nation, lacks enough skilled workers to fill some of the current openings and establish a ready workforce to supply new demands.
“There are definitely some pockets of jobs and skills,” said Louis Fordham, a vice president at J&J Industries and chairman of the Whitfield Board of Education. “There aren’t that many skill sets in the industry looking for jobs and so you still have those skilled areas that are out there.”
As an example, he said a process engineer job at J&J has been open for 90 days. There were applicants for the job but no one with the necessary technical and people skills to fill it, he said.
Education is especially important in an area recognized for having a 12.5 percent unemployment rate by the latest figures and having dropped 4,600 jobs with employment decreasing 6.9 percent from June 2011 to June 2012. The numbers are for Dalton’s metropolitan statistical area, which covers Whitfield and Murray counties.
The city and county school systems, city of Dalton officials and Whitfield County government officials as well as the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce and other entities recently agreed to support fundamental changes to the area’s education system and all the social services and government services that support it.
Whitfield County Schools officials are investing $800,000 to begin a focused literacy initiative in their highest-poverty elementary schools this year with plans to eventually expand it to all schools through eighth grade. Dalton Public Schools officials invested a similar amount to continue with and bolster the program they have had for several years. It focuses on having children reading on grade level by third grade, a time educators say is critical to the rest of a child’s educational career.
On top of that, leaders in both public school systems are making investments in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education in hopes of preparing a workforce ready for what educators and economists say are the jobs of the future. The Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy (formerly the Whitfield Career Academy) has expanded its offerings into Whitfield County’s middle schools and other high schools. Georgia Northwestern Technical College has opened a campus at the Career Academy at the request of executives from several local companies that said they were facing a shortage of skilled laborers.
Investment in education is a topic the community has been discussing for years through the Archway Partnership, a University of Georgia program designed to provide a paid professional to work with local leaders to decide ways to improve communities. The other top issues were the economy and environment with environment referring to the area’s way of life.
Quality of life
Quality of life is one area city officials, among others, have tried to address.
Dalton Downtown Development Authority marketing director Veronica French said the downtown district has grown from 281 businesses in 2008, before the nationwide economic recession, to 318 this year. During that time, the DDDA has also sponsored or helped support several new downtown events including an annual beer festival, a spring open house, a Downtown Sampler, the Dalton Half Marathon, a Strut Your Mutt dog show and the Liberty Tree Festival.
The city this year developed an active young professionals group that meets several times a month and organizes volunteer and networking activities geared toward people younger than 40.
Mayor David Pennington said the area laid off so many workers only because it had so many jobs to begin with. Not all of those are in the flooring industry either. According to Georgia Department of Labor statistics, Hamilton Medical Center, Walmart and O’Reilly Automotive Inc. are among the area’s top 10 employers.
“We’re a lot more diverse than people realize,” Pennington said. “It’s just the carpet industry is so huge — thank goodness — it dwarfs everything.”