Grooming Employees for the Future

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A cadet with the Covington Fire Explorer program receives training on handling a 2 1/2″ handline.

Plagued by the challenges of looming retirements, a competitive job market and compensation issues, city governments are finding ways to cultivate their own employees.

In December 2019, Kevin Kenderick graduated from the police academy at South Georgia Technical College and immediately accepted a job with the Leesburg Police Department in his hometown. It was a job he had been training for since he was 15.

Kevin, along with his twin brother, Kevon, were part of Leesburg’s Police Explorer’s program that trains youth from 14 – 20 years old to be public safety officers. Both graduated from the police academy on the same day. Kevin was hired in Leesburg and Kevon accepted a position in neighboring Dawson. (Note: The Kenderick brothers now both work for the Cordele Police Department.)

Facing a shortage of workers in local government, Leesburg is just one example of how city governments are training young people in high school with the hopes they will accept fulltime positions in the future.

Public sector jobs are becoming harder and harder to fill. Reasons for this include the “Silver Tsunami” in which baby boomers are retiring in large numbers, a competitive job market and compensation issues. In a 2020 workforce study conducted by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence (SLGE), respondents reported struggling most to fill positions in engineering, skilled trades, maintenance work/labor, policing and information technology (IT). Those categories were also at the top in a 2019 SLGE study.

What can cities do? One solution is to start grooming the future workforce early. Through a variety of programs, cities are partnering with the local school systems to recruit and train future employees. These include internships, on-the-job training and education.

Learning by Doing

The city of Hartwell faces a challenge that many municipalities would like to have: Large companies moving into the area and boosting employment opportunities. While beneficial to the economy, it has stretched the workforce thin and made the job market in Hartwell highly competitive. To help fill vacancies, Hartwell City Manager Jon Herschell solicited help from the Hart County High School College and Career Academy. Since 2019, the Academy has matched students with part-time jobs in maintenance and administrative positions.

“These kids have done everything from landscaping to working on a street crew to helping with IT needs,” Herschell says. “It was a creative way for us to address our labor needs. Short term, we get some help. Long term, it’s grooming them for a future position. We get them plugged in early and give them practical experience.”

Swainsboro has taken the same approach, but in a more formal way by working with the Great Partnership Promise (GPP), a public private partnership that helps place at-risk kids in city positions, giving them the opportunity to learn valuable job skills. The city of Valdosta was one of the first cities to participate in this program.

Swainsboro hires high school students to work part-time in the city office answering the phones and providing customer service at the front desk.

“This frees up my staff to do other things,” says Al Lawson, Swainsboro’s city administrator. “It’s tough to hire the staff you need, and we are strapped as a small city. This program met that need and has been extremely successful.” The program, which was started in 2019, was put on hold through the pandemic, but Lawson is confident it can begin again soon, and by exposing them to different opportunities, also hopes the city will get future employees.

“Exploring” the Options

Police and Fire Explorer programs provide hands on training for high school students who think they might want to go in to public safety. Leesburg started its Police Explorers program ten years ago, and the City of Covington introduced a Fire Explorers program in 2019.

“Having a teen and young adult-based cadet program allows us to identify young people within our community that may have an interest in public safety,” says Leesburg Police Chief Chris Prokesh. “This allows us to learn the demeanor, communication skills, and work ethic of local young individuals who may develop into strong recruitment candidates, and just as importantly creates an avenue for them to garner first-hand job exposure, meld with our staff and learn our goals and expectations for a sworn officer.”

Members of the Leesburg Police Explorers program at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center.

Besides offering job training, the program also provides what Prokesh calls “low-cost manpower assistance” to the Police Department as the cadets are trained to help with traffic control, and also help organize and staff community events.

In 2019, the Covington Fire Department started a pilot program with the local high schools where students were accepted into a work/study schedule, meeting at the fire station two days every week during the school year. The department developed a curriculum and firefighters trained the cadets on firefighting skills, equipment, first aid, CPR, EMT skills and general safety. In the first year, eight cadets completed the program.

“By having the cadet program at the fire station, the students were learning hands-on every day the life of a firefighter,” says Chief Jeremy Holmes. “It allowed our department exposure to a very diverse group of students, and the outcomes have been amazing.”

Covington’s program is too new to have any recruits, but Holmes says one female cadet is completing the required state training and is hoping to get hired on soon. Along with the Kenderick brothers, six other cadets have been hired in public safety positions across the state as a result of the Leesburg Police Explorers program, including one who is a firefighter with Leesburg’s Fire Department and another fulltime employee with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.

Educating Students on the Possibilities

Chances are most young people don’t think about a future at the local water company. In fact, most kids don’t know much about water beyond it coming out of the tap.

The Marietta City Water Department wanted to change that. For the last several years, they have visited elementary schools on “Career Days,” educating students on the water treatment process and also sharing the kinds of jobs that are available in the industry. They also participate in H2Opportunity a workforce recruitment initiative from the Georgia Association of Water Professionals (GAWP) established in 2007. With a tagline of “Career Paths for Water Protection from GED to PhD,” the H2Opportunity program provides education and outreach materials for utilities to use in their local school systems.

Three students and H2Opportunity representatives from Marietta, Atlanta and Arcadis, Inc. at the “World of Water” booth as part of the 2020 Construction Education Foundation of Georgia Expo.

“We work to educate young people on the value of water and also teach them about a possible career that has meaningful purpose,” says Kim Holland, director of water and wastewater at Marietta Water. “We want to reach students early to make them aware of the many jobs available in water departments at all skill and education levels.”

In 2020, Marietta Water partnered with other utilities within GAWP to create a “World of Water” booth at the 2020 Construction Education Foundation of Georgia Expo, an annual event that links students to careers in the trade industries. Holland says they can reach a lot of students at this event to share the many career opportunities the water industry has to offer.

While cities like Covington, Hartwell, Leesburg, Marietta and Swainsboro benefit from these programs, the teenagers also benefit as well. They learn a skill, gain work experience and confidence and possibly pave the road for future employment.

“It’s a win-win for everyone,” says Hartwell’s Herschell. “Cities get employees, and it shows students the opportunities that are available to them. They get a taste of the ‘real world.’”

Read part six of this 12-part series, “Reaping the Benefits of a Youth Commission.”

Sara Baxter is a freelance writer based in Decatur, GA. She specializes in telling stories for nonprofit organizations.

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