By State Rep. Stacey Evans (D) –
Well, we’re off! The 2015 Legislative Session is now in full swing and if you’ve picked up a paper you know that the General Assembly is poised to address some of the state’s most pressing issues, namely, transportation.
As we negotiate the extent to which we should bolster our infrastructure to support and expand business opportunities, we must remember that, in order to do that, the state is going to need a skilled and ready work force.
Our skills gap has increasingly become one of the biggest problems facing our state. While we have been working to piecemeal a fix, we cannot move our state forward without more. In fact, when you analyze how the state has supported the system and the people best suited to train a 21st century workforce—our technical college system—one can only conclude that we have to do more.
I have traveled around the state for the past two years visiting technical colleges and seeing firsthand how these institutions serve as the economic engine of the state. At each stop, we hear the same thing: if financial access to these institutions is decreased, the students leave. We hear that there are people all across the state ready to work, but they cannot afford to get the skills they need to get the job done.
The average technical college student is a white, 28-year-old mother from rural Georgia and from a household income of less than $20,000 a year. This is why, when we altered the HOPE Grant program in 2011, we saw such a massive decrease in technical college enrollment. The out-of-pocket expense was simply unaffordable.
I am thankful to have been a part of a bipartisan coalition that has begun the process of reopening the access taken away in 2011 when the HOPE Grant program was altered. And it’s working. People are slowly returning to our technical colleges to get the training they need to get to the middle class. But, I’m afraid the pace of increasing access to our technical colleges has to speed up in order to keep up with what the General Assembly is considering doing this year.
When we as Democrats are considering the leverage that we have in this conversation about transportation funding, I hope we will remember that mother I described, her need to be trained as a member of today’s modern work force, and the skills gap that we must fill in order to get the job done right.
We have options. I have proposed a package of HOPE bills that has bipartisan support that will increase access to technical college for the other ones that need it the most: the businesses that we will be depending on to bolster our transportation infrastructure and the businesses that we hope to support and attract with our improved infrastructure.
The transportation tax is being pitched as a good idea for all, and that is something I tend to agree with. But while Democrats will be posturing for transit to be included, we should also be using this opportunity to make sure that Georgians who want to help with these projects are able to access the opportunity to get trained to do so. And that “once we build it they will come.” Great roads will only take us so far. We need skilled workers ready to fill the jobs newly attracted businesses will bring.
If we get serious about closing the skills gap, it will impact the lives of the Georgians we train well beyond temporary public-private projects. It is a long-term investment in the lives of Georgians and our economy. My HOPE package offers Georgians the ability to access that long-term investment. If we as a state are ready to invest in our transportation infrastructure, we are ready to invest in closing the skills gap and the opportunity that is still just out of reach for many of our fellow able Georgians.
The author, a Democrat from Smyrna, represents state House District 42.