Walker County school district asks what skills are needed by Northwest Georgia business, industry community

Staff Photo by Andrew Wilkins / A student in the Walker County school district's Launch program, Jacob Broome, gives a welding demonstration while fellow student Jonathan Bullard observes Thursday.
Staff Photo by Andrew Wilkins / A student in the Walker County school district's Launch program, Jacob Broome, gives a welding demonstration while fellow student Jonathan Bullard observes Thursday.

Officials from the Walker County school district are reaching out to the Northwest Georgia business community to learn which professional skills are needed by the next generation of workers.

The inquiry came during a luncheon hosted by the county's school system and leadership of Launch, a program that allows high school students to earn professional certifications while completing their high school education.

Julie Portwood, coordinator for Launch, said the program was part of an effort by Superintendent Damon Raines and officials at Walker County Schools to make students more workforce ready.

"We want to help our students to be ready to work in your businesses," Portwood said to the group of about 50 people. "But we're educators, and we need you to tell us how we can best collaborate with you."

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The luncheon was Thursday at Georgia Northwestern Technical College in Rock Spring. Students enrolled in the program described their experience learning professional skills, and a representative from Georgia Power encouraged local business leaders to partner with Launch and the school system.

Portwood asked business leaders to complete an economic needs assessment to let school officials know what skills are needed by local businesses and industries, as well as write a letter of support as the school system applies to add a College and Career Academy -- a state designation that would give the school system more funding to add more hands-on workforce training programs.

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In its fifth year, Portwood said Launch's hands-on programs are cosmetology, heating and air, automotive and welding. Several other subjects, including early childhood education, logistics and criminal justice, are taught remotely. About 100 students are in the program, Portwood said.

Portwood said school officials want to add four more programs to the hands-on instruction: automation engineering and whatever other skills the business and industry community tell them are in high demand.

Many local high schools have skills training, but Portwood said Launch is different because it allows students to earn professional certifications and gain deeper skills. Launch tries not to duplicate skills available at local high schools, she said.

Daryl Vazquez, a resident of Rossville, was one of four Launch students who attended the lunch. His father grew up poor in Mexico, and because of that, he said his father has always pushed him to finish school and find a good job.

Vazquez is studying logistics and marketing to help his father manage the family's construction and framing business. A high school junior now, he said he wants to study drafting next year to help his father develop blueprints for his business.

He's already received multiple offers and scholarships from area colleges, he said to the crowd.

Scott Skinner, area manager for Georgia Power's Northwest Georgia region, said local businesses should partner with the Launch program because it gets students ready to work right out of high school. When he was in school, Skinner said, students only read books and took tests -- but didn't have that hands-on learning opportunity that Launch provides.

"Georgia Power is committed to the success of our students," Skinner said to the crowd. "We know that the students of today are the workforce of tomorrow. So we want to help our school system."

Jacob Broome, a resident of LaFayette, said his Launch instructors are patient and have taught him a wide variety of skills needed for a career in welding.

"It's a great program; they'll teach you everything here," he said after conducting a welding demonstration at the campus.

Broome said he's finishing high school at 17 years old and has a job waiting for him at Labrie Enviroquip Group next month. Labrie is a manufacturer of equipment for the solid waste industry. He said he's starting at $15 an hour but will bump up to $17 in 90 days.

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"That's just because I'm young," Broome said. "Us younger kids need more experience before they can get a really good paying job."

Instructors at the school said experienced welders generally make from $20 to $25 an hour.

Raines said about 50% of Walker County school district graduates won't go on to college, and they need to be ready to enter the workforce immediately. Welding is a high-demand job, he said, and several of his students are being hired as linemen -- a job in which they can earn about $100,000 early in their career.

Partnerships that give students exposure to business and industry build trust as well as skills, he told the crowd.

"If you've bought into this idea that the future is not bright because of our kids, I'll ask you this: Walk into any of our buildings, and talk to our kids," Raines said. "Our kids are amazing, and they're ready to take on the future."

Contact Andrew Wilkins at awilkins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

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