MOULTRIE — The Georgia House Rural Development Council debated broadband internet service and the rural workforce among other things at its two-day meeting, Sept. 10-11.

Deana Perry, broadband director of the Department of Community Affairs, led a panel at the meeting at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine South Georgia.

Her panel covered the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative and the statewide mapping of the areas without broadband coverage.

“Not only does the map approach work, but it can also be implemented statewide,” said Perry. “We’re targeting completion of the mapping in June 2020.”

The purpose of the statewide mapping project, according to Perry, is to precisely map every household where broadband was not available. Both providers and counties alike made an effort to get the numbers to form an accurate map of those places.

“This is a heavy lift to ask of counties and providers,” said Perry. “It’s very costly, there are a lot of resources, a lot of technical aspects, so we’re very appreciative of those counties who have been helping us.”

Many of the commissioners expressed concerns about the lack of broadband coverage in rural South Georgia, where internet coverage is either very small or non-existent in some places. According to George Emami, county commissioner of Monroe County, approximately 55% of residents in the county are without high-speed internet or a high-speed internet provider, and it’s even affecting real estate in the area.

“We’ve had people the day before or the day of closing on a house find out that there’s little to no internet in the area and for some people, that’s a deal breaker,” said Emami.

According to Emami, about 51% of all businesses in Monroe County, especially in its rural areas, are not served, and the ones that are served only have access to the “antiquated” system, digital subscriber line (DSL), which allows speeds of up to 1.5 megabits.

“With that, you might get access to your email, but forget about streaming Netflix or YouTube. Even service industry jobs, which often require uploading and downloading large files types, those speeds make it impossible to operate even a small business,” he said.

Rural workforce

Jamie Jordan, progams and business services director for the Technical College System of Georgia Office of Workforce Development, led the panel on growing the rural workforce.

His panel, Georgia Workforce Development Landscape and Solutions, discussed the ins and outs of Georgia’s current workforce landscape and its potential future.

The current landscape demands people with careers in information technology, healthcare, manufacturing, aerospace, education and agribusiness to name a few.

With that demand, the workforce needs earlier preparation. Enter Worksource Sector Partnerships, an effort to get regions to work collaboratively, Jordan said.

“We’re pulling together K(kindergarten) through 12 (12th grade) with their post-secondary partners and community-based organizations to then also work hand-in-hand with the business community within the region,” he said.

This is so programs within each of 12 regions can meet their specific needs. Jordan said the programs may differ depending on the age group. Career days or exposure programs may be more tailored to elementary students while hands-on experience may fit middle and high schoolers more.

More than that though, Jordan said the future demand will be automation and machinery; however it doesn’t make manpower extinct. Rather, it calls for a change in thinking.

John “Jad”  Dowdy III, chief financial officer of Danimer Scientific and one part of the three-person Georgia Agribusiness and Rural Jobs Act panel, said this is something his company is already looking into.

Danimer Scientific has two plants housed in Bainbridge, Georgia, and with its steady industrial growth, its demand for workforce is heightened.

“The demand [for them] is really high,” Dowdy said. “We’re building our capacity now, investing in equipment which in turn causes us to hire more employees to operate those machines, more scientists to do research work [and] more accounts to pay their payroll.”

But there isn’t always enough workforce in the direct vicinity. Jordan said this calls for rural sourcing instead of outsourcing overseas or out of state. It’s something Dowdy is already familiar with.

Danimer Scientific has employees from Cairo, Colquitt County, and Blakely, Georgia. Since it’s a biotechnology company, it often demands workers with hard-to-find skillsets. Searching outside Bainbridge is a must sometimes.

“Life in southwest Georgia is not for everybody,” Dowdy said. “It’s a lot more likely that a guy that grew up here and has a reason to be here is going to stay versus someone that’s moving here from Boston.”

People who’ve moved from out of state have stayed but Dowdy said the company prefers searching for workforce at home. Even with rural sourcing, issues arise with moving to parts of rural Georgia.

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