Just northwest of Atlanta, Cherokee County boasts a well-educated population. More than 90 percent of its residents 25 and older graduated from high school. More than a third have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Yet 78 percent of the employed residents commute outside Cherokee County—some as far as Hall and Clayton counties.
That commute to areas outside of Cherokee County causes multiple problems. Residents find themselves sacrificing quality of life for hours in traffic while the county faces an influx of new residents but a daily drain in talent. If the workforce in Cherokee County didn’t match the jobs local industries were looking to fill—or the jobs they hope to draw in—the local economy would be in trouble.
“They recognized that if they were going to achieve their economic development goals they were going to have to win at their talent goals,” said Greg Wilson, a public service assistant at UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. “Keeping jobs and attracting new jobs in years to come.”
In 2016, the Cherokee Office of Economic Development formed the Cherokee Workforce Collaborative (CWC) and partnered with the Institute of Government to develop a strategic plan for workforce development. The collaboration brought together community members representing industry, education and other critical partners from economic and workforce development to evaluate labor market and education data to address the talent gaps and workforce challenges.
Guided by Wilson and supported by David Tanner and Mercy Montgomery from the Institute of Government, the CWC began creating a road map to identify workforce needs and strengthen its ability to recruit and retain jobs. The plan that evolved identified four priorities for improving its workforce pipeline: internships, innovative career preparation, business and education alliances, and sustaining momentum.
Within two years, Cherokee has already started hitting all the marks by using the plan that the Institute of Government helped the CWC create as “a strategic blueprint.”
“They pointed us in a measurable direction making sure we’re using the data and putting it into the community with a specific strategy,” said Misti Martin, president of the Cherokee Office of Economic Development. “Every group was just doing their own thing before. All good work, but now I feel like everybody is in the room sharing their great ideas and working together on it. I can’t wait to see what happens next and where it goes from here.”
Workforce development is not just an issue for Cherokee County, but for communities throughout the state. Workforce quality and availability is critical for business recruitment and retention, and Georgia made it a priority through former Gov. Nathan Deal’s High Demand Career Initiative (HDCI) addressing the need to develop skilled workers to meet the growing needs across the state.
The Institute of Government has helped guide workforce development and education planning in a number of Georgia communities, including Cobb, Pickens, Gilmer, Forsyth and Hart counties, and Middle Georgia, Southwest Georgia and Southern Georgia. Plans are underway in Gainesville and Albany.
When Chart Industries, which had an advanced manufacturing facility located in north Cherokee County for more than 30 years, was looking to relocate its headquarters from Ohio to the Atlanta area, it originally discounted Cherokee as a viable alternative.
“We presented data to them and they moved their headquarters (to Ball Ground in north Cherokee County) in 2017 and had an easy time finding all the upper management that they needed and couldn’t be more happy with it,” Martin said. “We’re having to prove that even though we’re outside Atlanta, it’s still a good location.”
CWC Chair Aaron Ingram says communication between the business community and the local schools has greatly improved because they recognize they have the same objective.
“It was sort of obvious that there was a bit of a disconnect between the needs identified by industry in terms of skill sets that were required for their future labor workforce, and the understanding by the school system as to what those skill sets might be,” said Ingram, president of NeoMed Inc., a medical device company in Woodstock, Ga. “This facilitates a lot better communication and buy-in and understanding of the problems inherent to each one of us.”
Martin, Ingram and Shawna Mercer, who was hired to manage CWC programs in 2018, say the internship programs are the biggest success to date. Thirteen rising high school juniors and seniors were offered paid internships this past summer at a variety of industries, including Alma Coffee, a farm-to-cup coffee roasting company with locations in Canton and Woodstock, and Roytec Industries, an electrical wire harness and assembly manufacturer in Woodstock.
Etowah High School Senior Kieran Black was hired as an IT intern for Universal Alloy Corporation (UAC) in Canton, which manufactures aerospace products for companies like Gulfstream, Boeing, and Airbus.
“When I first signed up for it I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” Black said. “I had never ever worked a corporate job like that before. So it was a really invaluable experience to be able to see that sort of environment and to get that hands-on experience.”
The company asked Black, who has experience coding, to stay on beyond the six-week internship to work on a project to create a web app that would help UAC run inventory on all its products each month.
“I actually got to live test it on August 1 because I was still working there and it went pretty well,” Black said. “They’re planning on using it in the future, too. So that was really cool.”
UAC was so impressed they said they would hire Black “in a heartbeat,” Mercer said.
“In the past there was trepidation to hire high school students,” she said. “Programs like this have really changed that narrative. Having a high school student provide instant value and bring something to the table is something special.”
The Cherokee Office of Economic Development also is working with high schools in the county, Chattahoochee Technical College, Reinhardt University and Kennesaw State University to enhance career opportunities for high school graduates who don’t pursue a four-year college degree.
High school Career, Technical and Agricultural Education (CTAE) programs are being expanded to offer hard-skills training for jobs that local employers need to fill. Cherokee County is in the initial stages of launching a mobile training workshop that will feature modules that help young people discover opportunities in skilled professions, including the education required and wage expectations.
“What about the 28 percent going straight into the workforce?” Martin said. “Why can we not have them ready to look into a trade or career instead of just walking into a low-end, no-skill job?”
Cherokee also is working to bring back employees who have left the county for jobs elsewhere, or are commuting to other counties for work. Cherokee By Choice highlights job openings available across the county. A career expo, held in March each year, draws in more than 400 job seekers to learn about opportunities in local businesses and industries.
Carolina Fernandez had been commuting from her home in Woodstock to work in Norcross for 13 years before attending the 2018 career expo. She found a new job managing human resources at Jaipur Living, a rug manufacturer in southwest Cherokee, shaving more than 40 miles off her daily commute.
“After years of driving, I wanted to find a job closer to home,” said Fernandez, who returned to the expo this March as an employer. “I came to the Cherokee Career Expo last year and found my dream job.”
Cherokee County’s progress in creating workforce building blocks bodes well for the growing county’s future.
“It’s a long game,” Wilson said. “They’re already having some wins now after three years, but if they keep this focus on talent for decades they’re really going to be a shining star in Georgia and even across the southeast.”
Kelly Simmons PSO Director of Communications