KENNESAW- The numbers were more than Jay Cunningham expected - way more. In the two years since Cunningham, owner of Superior Plumbing in Kennesaw, helped initiate the Construction Pathways pilot program at North Cobb High School, the enrollment numbers continue to climb.

At last count, 390 North Cobb students signed up to take trade classes geared toward skilled labor positions in fields such as plumbing and construction. The program, and the ones like it at Kennesaw Mountain and Allatoona high schools, is part of an effort to build a labor pool that Cobb business owners like Cunningham say is far too depleted and years away from being replenished.

"There is a dramatic shortage for these types of workers," said Cunningham, who along with Paul Letalien, president of Archer Restoration in Acworth, have donated upward of $50,000 per year to fund the programs at North Cobb and Kennesaw Mountain high schools, and assisted with the Alatoona initiative. "Somewhere along the way, we failed at some level to address this. We are 12 to 15, maybe even 30 years away from beginning to fill the number of people qualified for these jobs."

Just how serious is the problem?

According to the "Go Build Georgia" program - Gov. Nathan Deal's campaign to curb the skills cap - there are 83,000 job openings in manufacturing, construction and other skilled trade areas. To make matters more dire, for

every four people retiring from a skilled trade job, there is only one person available and qualified to fill a position, program research found.

Projections show there will be more than 80,000 jobs available in skilled trades within the next three years.

"The jobs are out there and employers are begging for the right workers to fill those spots," said Shane Evans, associate dean of technical and business programs at Chattahoochee Technical College (CTC).

For example, CTC officials often hear about the needs for welders, engineers and various types of technicians. "The challenge is to find interested students who want to learn about these industries and prepare them for the jobs available," Evans said. "We have to get away from thinking these jobs and careers are for people who cannot handle a four-year college education. These jobs are for people who enjoy working with their hands, have an aptitude for mechanical and technical equipment, and the list goes on."

Lucylle Shelton, career services coordinator for all eight of Chattahoochee Technical College campuses, said that manufacturing and technology employers post jobs frequently, but are finding few applicants. "We have current postings for bodyshop, auto tech, electricians, diesel techs, industrial techs and warehouse positions. We offer these programs, but there are not enough students in them to fill the need or they are not fully trained at the time to be able to qualify."

The numbers don't lie. According to a 2012 national report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, persons without a high school diploma had a 12.4 percent unemployment rate. Unemployment for individuals with a high school diploma was 8.3 percent. Americans with some college, but no degree were facing a 7.7 percent unemployment rate, while associate program graduates were at 6.2 percent.

"Cobb County is pretty representative of the larger issue in the United States right now," Evans said. "There is a skills gap that continues to plague employers where potential employees are not qualified with the right skill set. This means jobs are either being left open or filled with people from other geographic areas. Our labor force is one of the largest in northwest Georgia, but unlike many of our neighbors, it's not totally reliant upon manufacturing and construction as stabilizers in its economy."

The enrollment numbers at North Cobb are proof that the efforts by community and academic leaders to curb the shortage is working, albeit slowly. "My dream is that, together, we will be able to save opportunities for these kids," Cunningham said. "The growth at North Cobb was through word-of-mouth by the students. That means something. That's what could make a difference."

SIDEBAR (if needed or for online)

New student grant provides new opportunities for Chattahoochee Tech students

There is more help on the way for the skilled labor shortage plaguing Cobb County and the rest of the state. A grant approved in Georgia's 2013 Legislative Session now is an option for qualified students at Chattahoochee Technical College (CTC).

Thanks to Georgia's Strategic Industries Workforce Development Grant Award, CTC students receiving the HOPE Grant also may be eligible for additional financial assistance for the Commercial Truck Driving, Early Childhood Care/Education and Practical Nursing programs.

"We offer the skill training in the trades that are in demand by industry," says Lucylle Shelton, career services coordinator for all eight of Chattahoochee Technical College campuses. "Students often enter these programs thinking that they are easy and a quick way to a good job. If they stick with it they will be well rewarded with good jobs."

Beginning this fall, when they are qualifying for the HOPE Grant, students simultaneously can qualify for the Strategic Industries Workforce Development Grant Award. There is no application for the grant. Students enrolled in one of those three diploma or certificate programs automatically will be screened for the financial package.

The grant provides funding for students in these high-demand careers in Georgia. For example, students in the Commercial Truck Driving program at CTC's North Metro Campus could qualify for a one-time grant of $1,000. The typical cost for the eight-week program currently is $1,576 for in-state students, plus the cost of books. With both HOPE Grant and the SIWDG funds, a student would only be required to pay a fraction of that amount.



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