Top education and specialized training programs make Georgia a prime place to find a diverse and multifaceted workforce
by Gracie Bonds Staples / photography by Brian Ingram
Stuart Countess, president and CEO of Kia Georgia, ticks off a long list of reasons why, in 2006, the Korean automaker made the biggest single foreign investment in Georgia history at that time. The list of reasons to build a plant in West Point, sinking $1.9 billion into the local economy, was extensive, including direct access to Interstate 85, Georgia Quick Start’s reputation as the best workforce readiness program in the country, and last but not least, the area’s available employees.
“That workforce has set Kia apart and was responsible for ushering in a new era of quality, safety, and design for the Kia brand,” Countess says.
Kia’s success belies the nationwide labor shortage. According to a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. had 11 million job openings at the end of October 2021, compared to 6.5 million hires.
And yet, not only is the Peach State considered the place to find a diverse and multifaceted talent pool, but it has also been named the top state for doing business by Area Development magazine for the last eight years in a row.
Paul Judge, managing partner of Panoramic Ventures, an Atlanta-based tech venture fund, attributes Georgia’s star power to what he calls the three Cs: colleges, corporations, and culture.
For starters, Georgia colleges have over 500,000 students, and Georgia Tech, his alma mater, not only ranks top 10 in the country in all 11 of its engineering programs, it also graduates more engineers every year than Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and MIT combined.
Georgia State, the University of Georgia, and local HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) like Morehouse and Spelman add to those numbers. The 33 Fortune 1000 companies in the state, such as UPS, Aflac, and Pulte Homes, are a steady source of experienced professionals as well, including managerial and executive talent.
Add in the cultural influence of film, gaming, and music that fosters creative thinkers like graphic artists, writers, and designers, and you have the makings of a statewide talent show that remains unmatched.
“These are key skills needed as the consumerization of tech touches many different industries,” Judge says. “As companies start to think about web3, blockchain, and the metaverse, Georgia is well positioned given the activity in film, gaming, and the large cultural influence of celebrities in the state.
“Lastly, as many corporations are working towards diversity and inclusion goals, the diversity of Atlanta and Georgia leads to a more diverse talent pool than you might find in other [places],” he adds.
Employees Without Borders
A properly trained workforce is a capable one, but even talented would-be employees can be overlooked. That’s where Stephanie Nadi Olson comes in.
Olson is the founder and CEO of We Are Rosie or WRR, a fully flexible career platform that provides continuing education and a sense of belonging to a community of some 10,000 independent marketing and advertising professionals.
We Are Rosie leverages proprietary technology and algorithms to match that talent to project-based work with Fortune 500 brands, consultancies, and ad agencies. Once Rosies, as its freelancers are affectionately called, are matched with a project, they get to work with the support of the platform behind them. They are paid weekly and offered full benefits and access to all the other contractors in the community to collaborate on projects.
Projects range from 20 hours per week for a few months to 40 hours per week for two years. And, while it’s not a requirement for Rosies to be female, the overwhelming majority are.
Founded in 2018, the company, which recently received a growth investment from Align Capital Partners in a deal valuing the company at $110 million, tripled its revenue in the past year and now works with more than 25 Fortune 500 brands and all six major advertising holding companies. In 2021 alone, more than 1,200 flexible project opportunities came to contractors through We Are Rosie.
Olson knows firsthand that finding talent to build a thriving workforce is possible in Georgia. Indeed, approximately 40 percent of the first 500 Rosies in the community reside in the Peach State.
“It was Georgia talent that really got us off the ground,” Olson says. “Because of that start, our population in Georgia continues to be a larger percentage proportionately to the talent on our platform than traditional advertising markets like New York, Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles.”
It didn’t hurt that Olson was born and raised in Atlanta, educated at Georgia Tech, and has spent the last decade matching talent to companies in need of it.
Photo by David Kim @ Xapis Media
“When I started my marketing career over a decade ago, so many major brands were going to New York for talent,” Olson says, “I always had a chip on my shoulder about that.” Since launching We Are Rosie, Olson has seen a big shift. Big brands like Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and Delta have started to recognize they have talent right in their backyards. They don't need to go to Madison Avenue for top-quality partners.
Brands such as IBM, Facebook, Microsoft, Bumble, and IHG Hotels & Resorts have also relied on Olson’s diverse team to execute projects over the past several years. “They’ll come to us because they want an agile and inclusive approach to talent that We Are Rosie can deliver,” she says.
And her Rosies don’t have to give up their lives to attract business, showcase their talent, and enjoy the career of their dreams, as Altimese Curry of College Park knows firsthand. She was introduced to We Are Rosie early in 2019, three years after founding the Ezer Agency and while still working as the leader of a social media team for a national creative agency.
More than 460,000 residents were added in net migration to Georgia over the last five years.
When she was laid off, Curry threw all her energy into Ezer, specializing in public relations, digital marketing, and paid social media advertising. She also reached out to Olson to help further her agency business. “I thought that what she was building was brilliant,” Curry says. “When you are being paired or connected with potential clients, it doesn’t feel like an interview.
“In corporate America, I felt like I had to put on a face, to fit a mold. With We Are Rosie, it feels natural, rather than you having to be perfect or fit a facade. It’s kind of like matchmaking. [The client says,] ‘We have this opportunity. Are you interested?’” Curry explains.
Though working full-time in a corporate job felt safe because of the guaranteed paycheck, Curry sees a tremendous upside in working with high-powered clients like Facebook through We Are Rosie. In June 2020, her company hit six figures. In the first quarter of 2021, she surpassed her corporate salary.
Although most Rosies are based in the U.S., the community stretches across the globe to 60 countries, as marketers come on board for a sense of camaraderie, skill-sharing, and access to blue chip brands they otherwise might not encounter.
“While we have a geographically agnostic approach to hiring, a large percentage of our full-time employees are here in Georgia,” Olson says. “We have found incredible talent here and it’s been fun to grow our team with Georgia natives and people who have migrated to Georgia.”
According to Chris Clark, President and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the state witnessed a subtle shift in recent years. “No longer were companies prioritizing [just] location,” he says. “Instead they wanted data on graduation rates, demographic information, and access to colleges and universities. They were focusing more and more on talent as a leading determinant of relocation decision making.”
Even amid concerns that the state, and indeed the nation, was experiencing a brain drain, Georgia’s diverse talent pool has remained a showstopper.
“Over the last 30 years we’ve built a reputation globally of being able to quickly upskill and train workers for new companies moving to our state,” Clark says. GE Appliances, Baxter International, and more recently, the $5 billion investment by electric auto manufacturer Rivian are good examples.
The Chamber is working to ensure that today’s students are focused on honing the skills the state will need 10 years from now.
“Aligning our talent pool with available jobs, attracting global talent, enticing retirees back into the labor market, helping those with disabilities or those leaving our criminal justice system to re-enter the workforce, and providing skills of the future are all equally important to our long-term success. We’re working on all these strategies,” he says.
Helping would-be employees find the best education and jobs in every corner of Georgia remains a major focus for the Georgia Chamber, along with ensuring that rural high school graduates understand the opportunities that exist in their communities.
Georgia’s population is projected to grow by 25 percent from 2018 to 2038, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
For the last six years, for instance, the Chamber has been working through its Center for Rural Prosperity in Tifton to help rural areas improve their career pathways, leadership, marketing, downtowns, and sense of community to offer the kind of live-work-play-pray environment the next generation of talent demands.
“We’re seeing incredible success in those areas, thanks to the Department of Economic Development and Governor Kemp’s laser focus on rural job creation,” Clark says.
Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, for instance, is building incubators and innovation centers to help rural start-ups. And Valdosta State University is helping rural graduates connect with opportunities. In addition to holding semiannual career expos to introduce students to potential employers, the university identifies and connects students to companies hiring for special projects—projects that often lead to paid and academic internships as well as full-time jobs after graduation.
The state’s HBCUs are engaging their students to align with jobs of the future. That includes holding virtual job fairs that connect them to industry leaders such as IBM and offering nexus degrees that emphasize hands-on experiential learning, skilled knowledge, and industry relationships in high-demand career fields.
“Our university system, private colleges, and technical colleges all prioritize working with companies to prepare the next generation of career seekers,” Clark says. “Maintaining this focus in a difficult labor market will remain critical for our long-term economic success.”
Developed in collaboration with industry experts, the nexus degree was introduced by the University System of Georgia in 2018 to train undergraduates for careers in specialized, high-demand fields, such as cybersecurity, health informatics, and film production. In addition to specific coursework requirements, the new degree emphasizes experiential learning through internships and apprenticeships. The requisite field experience and connections to industry aim to cultivate a 21st-century-style flexible workforce that easily adapts to career changes.
Diversity Takes Center Stage
With a population of over 10 million, Georgia has a potential labor force of more than five million people.
Each year, the state’s 85 accredited public and private universities award more than 132,000 degrees and certificates to their graduates. In that mix is Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, Spelman College, and Morehouse College, counted among the nation’s top public universities and Historically Black Colleges and Universities, respectively.
Although located in Atlanta, Spelman, which has earned the top spot among the nation’s 105 HBCUs in U.S. News & World Report’s list of college rankings for 15 years in a row, enjoys an international presence.
Its career center is often deluged with employers looking for talent—and more specifically for Harold Bell, Spelman’s director of career planning and development, to point them in the right direction. “Anyone who’s looking for diverse talent is looking for me,” he says.
The college, like many of its cohorts in the HBCU system, has experienced a surge in interest in recent years. “We began to see employers assess and examine what diversity looked like in their organization, and in doing so they decided they needed to do some work,” Bell says. “They weren’t seeing people of color.”
More than 1.9 million students have been awarded approximately $23 billion in educational grants from Georgia HOPE Scholarships & Grants since 1993.
Although each of those HBCUs had long enjoyed what Bell described as a robust amount of interest from a vast array of companies, he says recent flashpoints amplified the conversation even more, and organizations who were doing gut checks increasingly started looking at Spelman and other HBCUs as feeder schools to find talent. “We get a whole lot of traction,” he says. “We have 2,000 students and 6,500 paid internships.” (For comparison, the University of Chicago has 6,000 students with 4,000 paid internships.)
Photo courtesy of Georgia Department of Economic Development
Georgia has been ramping up its talent pool for more than half a century, according to Georgia Quick Start’s executive director, Rodger Brown.
In 1967, when the state launched the workforce development program, a shift from a primarily agricultural economy to an industrial one was beginning to take center stage in many Southern states.
As the nation added more manufacturing jobs, Georgia’s companies needed access to skilled workers. The state’s answer was Quick Start, now considered the “gold standard” for workforce development programs throughout the U.S., especially when it comes to delivering the right skills a company needs at the right time.
Hence, Kia’s decision to locate in Georgia.
Quick Start worked with the automaker to design and build the Kia Georgia Training Center and then shepherded tens of thousands of job candidates through its pre-employment process. Virtually all of Kia’s 2,700 current production and maintenance team members received Quick Start training in robotics, welding, and electronics labs, Brown says.
On top of the jobs Kia created, Quick Start has helped parts suppliers add about 7,500 more jobs throughout the state. Think Sewon Precision in LaGrange, Dongwon Autopart Technology in Hogansville, and Sumika Polymer Compounds America in Griffin.
Kia’s Georgia Training Center has been so effective it has been called the “global benchmark” for workforce training by Kia Corporation executives.
“We can take someone who is an office manager for a medical office, assess that they have the motivation, and train them on production practices,” Brown says.
Since its inception, Quick Start has trained nearly 1.4 million Georgians through 7,200 projects that include everything from aerospace and biotechnology to pharmaceuticals, advanced manufacturing, and food and beverage production.
Training is job-specific, customized, and flexible, and is offered free as an incentive to companies to choose Georgia as a location to build or relocate their businesses. Partners include Starbucks in Augusta, Caterpillar in Athens, and NCR in Columbus.
“Workforce is the X factor,” Brown says. “Infrastructure is material, but to get an employee with a work ethic, talent, and capabilities to follow procedures and collaborate with their fellow employees is everything.”
At a leadership conference in October 2021, Kia CEO Stuart Countess lauded Quick Start and the Technical College System of Georgia for the success it has experienced.
Still, in many ways, West Point, located 80 miles south of Atlanta, had been primed for her starring role with the automaker. Once home to a thriving textile industry, the old mill town had fallen on hard times as textile jobs were outsourced overseas.
Unemployment was soaring. The economic outlook was bleak.
By the time Kia came calling in 2006 to build its massive factory in Troup County near the Alabama line, the community was ready for some good news and, more specifically, some well-paying jobs.
The challenge that Kia and its suppliers faced from the beginning, Countess says, was finding employees with the necessary skills to meet their operational needs.
After all, the state-of-the-art plant, sprawled across more than 2,000 acres, represented a $1.9 billion investment in the state and would operate 24 hours a day.
Quick Start “not only developed a training plan for our workforce of tomorrow but implemented Kia’s first online job application process that resulted in more than 43,000 applicants in only 30 days,” Countess notes.
Kia broke ground on the industrial park in 2006 and rolled out its first car three years later.
Today, more than 90 percent of the product made in the facility goes to U.S. dealerships and represents 40 percent of all the sales Kia makes in a single year. The company, along with its suppliers, has helped create more than 14,000 jobs and to date has produced more than 3.5 million cars out of West Point.
“There is no doubt that the state of Georgia has earned its title as the top state for doing business. Georgia has a premier workforce,” Countess says. “Just look at what we have been able to accomplish at Kia Georgia since beginning production 12 years ago. That workforce has set Kia apart and was responsible for ushering in a new era of quality, safety, and design for the Kia brand.”