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Life challenges, inflation pinch Hall County’s working poor
GED, certifications are major hurdle, or a boost, for entering workforce
A Wood's Mill High School student practices welding at Lanier Technical College in 2015. - photo by Time file photo

“If you need a job tomorrow, you can go to poultry and get one. It’s not for lack of getting a job that people suffer.”

That’s Jenny Taylor, senior director of career services with Goodwill North Georgia, which has been helping people find work since 1925. Goodwill saw 52,000 new people in its North Georgia career centers, and 3,087 in its Oakwood office alone.

Of those who dropped in for help in 2016, looking for Goodwill resources, job fairs and workshops, 74 percent found a job. Those who signed up for more extensive case management and training had a job placement rate of 85 percent.

The “vast majority” of those people were poor, either from short- or long-term unemployment or persistent, generational poverty, Taylor said.

Her message, and the message of others who work in workforce development in the state, is that jobs are out there.

Hall County’s unemployment rate is 3.9 percent and falling. On any given day, local businesses need another 200 welders in their shops — jobs that offer marketable experience and training. The poultry processing industry is hungry for employees and paying more than many might think. Gainesville’s retail sector is one of the fastest-growing in the county.

But for Hall County’s poor population, it’s not as simple is just landing the job.

“It’s keeping the job that’s really the issue for folks up there,” Taylor said.

A combination of problems keep people from holding on to work. Many are at-risk youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who aren’t connected to school or work; others don’t have a stable work history or are long-term unemployed; others are on welfare and have no income; and still others don’t have reliable transportation to work.

Hall County’s high cost of housing is requiring a large number of workers in the area to commute into the county,  a steep task for someone living in poverty given the cost of maintenance and gas.

For someone pulling in the median Hall County salary of $50,000, a blown tire is an inconvenience. For someone near or below the poverty line, it means they’ve lost their job.

“If you’re living in poverty, transportation is definitely an issue,” Taylor said. “That’s a big part of what we do, is helping people to work out transportation plans, plan B, plan C, car pool plans, child care plans. It’s not just the skill to become a good employee.

“It’s all the things in their lives that can prevent them from being successful to show up every day to work. Life gets in the way.”

There are other problems for people in poverty, as explained by Tim McDonald, a vice president at Lanier Technical College.

In Hall County, 22 percent of people ages 25 and older don’t have a high school degree, or about 45,000 people. In Georgia, 30 percent of low-income families have one parent who didn’t complete high school, and 89 percent of children whose parents don’t have a diploma are in low-income households.

“Many, if not most, of our local employers require a GED or a high school diploma. Folks who don’t have (the credential) are at a disadvantage in the marketplace,” McDonald said. “The college sees that as the most basic credential for employment and the beginning of a career, and I think it’s going to get more and more challenging for someone who does not have that credential to get meaningful employment.”

Meaningful employment is the key: Goodwill is able to help people get their start working in retail — its top four employers of program participants are retailers, followed by Kubota Manufacturing at No. 5 — with an average wage of $10.66 an hour.

But even with full-time work, $10.66 an hour isn’t much for a family.

“Folks who are only capable of getting low-wage jobs are often having to work several jobs, and people share homes and live with extended family or rent a room in order to make ends meet,” Taylor said.

The first step is to get a GED, McDonald said. The most basic credential increases an individual’s earning potential by $10,000 a year. Lanier Technical College offers GED training for free on its campuses.

Any additional income is critical at the early stages of Hall County’s economic growth, which is driving up the cost of goods and housing — but not wages, yet.

“We have not seen much wage inflation at this point, so low-skilled workers still experience difficulty making ends meet, even if they are successful finding and keeping a job,” Taylor said.

Lanier Tech offers tuition-based training for welding certification and other trade skills and academic training for careers like accounting and nursing.

McDonald said there’s hard evidence low-income residents of North Georgia are getting into the college’s programs. This past school year, 212 students earned their GED through the college. On the academic side, 34.7 percent of its students received Pell Grant financial aid funding, which is largely given to low-income students and can be used to pay for transportation and child care.

Practically any training at all is shown to have a dramatic increase in earning potential.

Both Taylor and McDonald said it’s critical for low earners to get training as soon as possible, as more jobs and middle-class careers are not only adding GED and diploma requirements, but additional technical training requirements.

“There’s not enough in that middle range of people, but it’s short-term training that people need of less than a year often to get to that level,” Taylor said. “Those are good-paying jobs, and there are more of those jobs than people to fill them, and that gap is expected to increase over time.”

Lanier Tech has more than a 99 percent in-career job placement rate, meaning that people who receive training in accounting end up with an accounting job.

And if they complete a program at the technical college, they’re practically guaranteed a job.

“If they complete one of our programs, then there’s basically a 100 percent chance they’re going to be employed,” McDonald said.

Read more stories in this series.

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