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DeKalb Chamber president says ‘we’re serious about education’ during workforce event

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DeKalb Chamber president says ‘we’re serious about education’ during workforce event

The DeKalb Chamber hosted a workforce development forum on Nov. 8. From left to right is, Tavarez Holston, Keith Parker, Michelle Jacobs and Alanna Hicks-King. The moderator is Joseph Lillyblad. Photo by Anila Yoganathan

This story has been updated. 

By Anila Yoganathan, contributor

DeKalb County, GA — DeKalb County’s business community is committed to improving education and the county’s workforce, the county chamber of commerce president said during a workforce forum held on Nov. 8.

“We’re going to make a statement as we move forward in Dekalb County that we’re serious about education,” DeKalb Chamber President and CEO Frankie Atwater Sr. said.

Panelists at the event discussed how partnerships between Dekalb education systems and local workforce organizations could better help high school and college graduates be successful in finding career paths. It could also help them shift gears in their careers.

The event featured two panels representing schools and workforce development experts. 

Panel 1 included:

– DeKalb County Superintendent Devon Horton

– City of Decatur Schools Superintendent, Gyimah Whitaker

– Senior director of strategic partnerships and external engagement at Agnes Scott College, Dawn Killenberg

– Dean of Tift College of Education at Mercer University, Tom Koballa

Panel 2 included:

– President of Georgia Piedmont Technical College, Tavarez Holston

– President and CEO of Goodwill of North Georgia, Keith Parker

– Associate Vice President of college and career ready at United Way, Michelle Jacobs

– Workforce development manager at Workforce Dekalb, Alanna Hicks-King

The panels touched on various points in the early education to workforce pipeline and challenges that prevent people from being successful in getting good jobs. 

Whitaker, Decatur’s school superintendent, brought up the student performance gap for marginalized students and the need to promote early literacy and how funding and partnerships are necessary to help students from birth. 

“​​What we know in the way education is funded in the state, it’s funded really more so from a Kindergarten through 12th grade level. However, if you are going to make a difference in literacy, you really have to start at birth,” Whitaker said. “And if you’re going to start at birth, it’s going to require partnerships, because from a funding mechanism from the state, the way in which we earn our money, we will never be able to close the achievement gap.” 

Horton addressed programs to help with the teacher shortage and how the county intends to remedy the problem by helping college students with bachelor’s degrees learn how to teach in the county through a residency program. Additionally, Horton mentioned plans to create a tutorial program for K-12 students in partnership with students and retirees. 

He also brought up the need to support students who don’t go to college or join the military but are going directly into the workforce after successfully graduating. 

“So this is a call to everyone in the room who can help trying to find ways to capture not just 75% but the full spectrum of all students that walk across our stage,” Horton said. 

In addition to helping students in K-12, Killenberg at Agnes Scott College called for businesses to open doors to students in college by helping them build work experience and help with funding programs. For example, funding scholarships for students hoping to eventually enter the healthcare field.

Building off of the issues raised by the education panel, the workforce panel discussed how partnerships need to start early on to help students but also address changes in the workforce now as the new generation is entering. 

“The workforce has changed, and we have to admit that employers have to become more flexible,” Hicks-King said. “We also have to talk on the other side of soft skills of those employees who have to know that when you get on a job, you can’t live your life going through social media. So there are some conversations that we need to have. But it starts with the collaboration.”

In addition to flexibility, Holston, with Georgia Piedmont Technical College, and Jacobs, with United Way, discussed how adults who are already in the workforce don’t always have a linear career pathway and for those who want to change careers there needs to be more avenues to be able to change pathways. 

“One of the things that we’ve been doing at United Way, we’ve been exploring using apprenticeships,” Jacobs said. “So it’s the thought process that if a young person starts in kindergarten, they’re supposed to go all the way through, graduate from high school, you have to go and get a four-year college degree in order for you to be the best person. There’s other ways to think about the young people.” 

Holston said organizations need to help people find out about more opportunities and career paths, especially for those who might not be limited in finding or knowing about those opportunities. That can happen at college, but also through businesses working with organizations that can help them recruit.

“I think the single biggest challenge facing Dekalb County, Metro Atlanta and so forth is intergenerational poverty,” Parker said. “The fastest way you can deal with poverty is to find someone in that household a job. There are longer term solutions that we have to work with, including working with the educational system, a whole host of other things, but if we can get one or two or even three people in the household, on the path to good, high paying positions, then we are beginning to solve the problem.”

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