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Workers who lack the technical ability to understand and operate computers will be excluded from the manufacturing work force of the near future, according to a report by the Brookings Institution.

Of the 20 occupations projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to grow the most quickly through 2018, 13 will require some postsecondary education. The occupations projected to decline most rapidly are those that don't require more than a high school diploma, Brookings said.

"A simple tufting machine that we had 40 years ago, basically you could lay a brick on the switch, and it could run itself," said Joe Yarbrough, executive vice president for operations at Mohawk Industries. "Today these machines are equipped with electronic controls."

Just under half of all jobs today require more than a high school diploma, and the demand for applicants with an associate degree will grow faster than any other category, Brookings found.

High unemployment means that if one job applicant can't already do the job, a company will simply hire someone who can rather than spend more money on training.

The Dalton, Ga.-based carpet industry has been able to keep its manufacturing operations in America because the process is largely automated, unlike the labor-heavy textile industry that has virtually disappeared.

The problem is that educators haven't quite caught up with private industry.

"The technology that's required to operate our businesses today require a set of skills that are quite frankly not available in our work force today," Yarbrough said. "The education process that we have needs to change."

industry calls shots

Some educators are already answering the call.

James Catanzaro, president of Chattanooga State Community College, said he's "consumed with" preparing candidates for the job world.

Like many technical and community colleges, he's developed partnerships with more than 100 companies, and adapts degrees specifically for each institution.

"For TVA we developed three degrees in the past year specifically for TVA personnel, for example in nuclear energy and technology," Catanzaro said.

Chattanooga State also works directly with large employers like Wacker and Volkswagen to train their workers directly, "outside of the accredited arena,"

The big question is whether schools are designed to serve businesses with a talented work force or whether they're designed to serve the U.S. youth population, he said.

"Our understanding is that we have to respond to the needs of America's corporations," many of which have been forced to search overseas for talent and relocate facilities outside of the U.S. in a search for skilled, inexpensive talent, Catanzaro said.

lower-level failures

The rise of community colleges is, in part, attributable to a K-12 education system that fails to produce enough skilled graduates, according to Cheryl Harvey, work force preparedness manager at Kingsport, Tenn.-based Eastman Chemical Co.

"The problem is down in the elementary and middle school areas," she said. "If you don't build the foundations strong, by the time they get to high school, they've given up."

Everything from so-called "soft skills," such as how to dress and behave, to reading and math have to be taught from scratch to post-secondary students, according to Melvin Everson, director of the Georgia Governor's Office of Workforce Development.

But post-secondary educators say they face a Catch-22. Businesses say they will not thrive in an environment threatened by significant government intervention, but government intervention is vital to pay for the retraining of jobless students who flunked out of high school or workers laid off from a dying industry.

effect of spending cuts

Ron Jackson, commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia, acknowledged that "many high school students aren't graduating ready to go to college and go to work."

But recent cuts to his technical training budget haven't helped. "The way we fund our education system, it's got to be something that's carefully evaluated as we make these absolutely necessary spending cuts at the federal level."

Others argue that it's not about money, but motivation. "Societal aspirations" are present in growing economics like China and India, but U.S. students and teachers have become much too comfortable, said Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Labratory.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.

"If you're not getting better, you're getting worse," he said. "There is no sitting still."

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