By Randy Southerland  – Contributing Writer, Atlanta Business Chronicle Dec 15, 2019, 6:00am EST

Developing a high-tech workforce geared to the demands of local industry is a community effort in Macon-Bibb County. Increasingly the local school system and technical college are working with companies and local leaders to ensure that students and new employees have the right skills and are ready to work.

“When a student graduates, they will either be employed, enlistedor enrolled,” said Curtis Jones, Bibb County Schools superintendent. “We started working toward that goal and trying to put programs and procedures in place to make it happen.”

Local organizations and leadership are working to develop programs that ensure students are receiving the right kinds of training not just for existing jobs, but for new types of employment in the future.

“Part of our strategic plan was we wanted to partner with the community,” said Jones.

One avenue to do so is the Business Education Partnership, an initiative between the school district and One Macon, a coalition of business and development organizations aimed at improving education and creating jobs.

The initiative helped schools develop new partnerships with the community including the Macon-Bibb County Chamber of Commerce.

“The chamber wants to be the consortium for targeting where the jobs of the future are going to be,” said Yvonne Williams, chamber president and CEO. “We’re also very involved in helping advocate for expanded programs in STEM and science technology, and also in avionics [the science of electronics for aviation] for the region.”

This collaboration led to the development of new career pathways at the county’s W.S Hutchings College and Career Academy, one of its specialty high schools. The school offers training in careers ranging from construction to video production. One of WSHCCA’s programs connects students with at least a B average in its industrial systems technology pathway with Perdue Farms, which guarantees them a job interview upon graduation.

“Those organizations came together and said, ‘These are the skills that we’re looking for and can you build a pathway that makes that works for us,’” he said. “That became the first legitimate piece of how we increase that number [of qualified workers in the county].”

The school system hired more technology staff and began upgrading the kinds of tech available to both teachers and students, he added.

“If we’re trying to prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist and for fields that don’t exist,” said Jones, “we’ve got to at least get them up to speed with where we are today [in technology].”

In November, voters agreed, and approved a renewal of the E-SPLOST sales tax, expected to generate $150 million for Bibb County Schools over a five-year period.

Some of these funds will be used for tech lessons, according to Williams. “All the young people, in middle school to high school, would have access to virtual technology instruction,” she said, “and that would develop technology as a very foundation for how we would attract jobs in the future.”

By 2021, the goal is for about 21,000 Bibb County students to get their own electronic devices, laptops or tablets. The school district also plans to develop a central technology training hub for teachers and students.

The relationships between the school system and local businesses and organizations, such as the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority and the chamber, help school leaders understand community labor needs, said Cassandra Miller-Washington, Bibb County Schools’ executive director of Career, Technical and Agricultural Education (CTAE).

The schools have provided externships to teachers and staff, to ensure they “truly understand what workforce looks like right now,” said Miller-Washington. “They’ve been teaching for several years, and they might not have been in a business or a company in a while or truly understand what the needs are.”

The cavernous hanger at Middle Georgia Regional Airport, which used to house Boeing Aircraft, now it is home to the 402nd Commodities Maintenance Group at Robins Air for Base and Central Georgia Technical College’s aviation maintenance and aircraft structural programs.

Known as Robins North, the hanger is being converted to accommodate Robins’ back-shop operations, along with classrooms and labs for the college.

Last year, the base announced it would hire 1,200 new workers in 12 months to handle a flood of new work overhauling military aircraft.

“For Robins, the need was for more capacity,” said Stephen Adams, president of the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority. “For the technical college, it is workforce development.”

Central Georgia Tech has long worked with Robins and aviation companies throughout the state to train mechanics and technicians.

The new facility will allow the college to grow beyond its current 300 students in the programs to meet accelerated demand, said Jeff Scruggs, executive vice president at Central Georgia Technical College. The proximity of the technical college and its aviation programs to the base’s operation will offer more opportunities for student internships and acquainting students with the realities of the working world, he added.

“We are seeing more and more of our graduates being recruited to work in the Atlanta area and Jacksonville, Florida area and Savannah,” said Scruggs. “We know that we had to increase our capacity to sustain the demands that industry has and continue to make sure that we’re supporting the federal [Department of Defense] sector.”

In addition to the Robins expansion, the airport is attracting other companies. Embraer Aircraft Maintenance Services, a division of the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer, will be doubling its workforce at the airport to 200. Dean Baldwin Painting, a provider of full strip and paint services for military and commercial aircraft, is building a four-bay service hangar and creating 115 new jobs. The technical college will be ready to provide workers to these and other companies, both at the airport and across the state.