Developing a Workforce for the Technology Sector
Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce
Forsyth County in the state of Georgia has a current population of approximately 235,000 people and is rapidly growing at an average of 4.27 percent every year. It is consistently among the top one hundred fastest-growing counties in the United States, and this is driven primarily by well-educated, affluent immigrants from India moving into the community to work in the advanced technology centers.
“We have a demographic shift going on right now as far as the projected growth for us as a community,” says Robert Long, vice president of economic development for the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce. “On top of that, we are currently just under twenty percent minority, but that is expected to grow to forty percent minority in the next couple of decades with the Asian Indians and at a lesser extent the Korean community that is growing. We are the fastest-growing Asian population county in the country.”
Quality employment opportunities in Forsyth County continue to unfold. Introduced late last year in Alpharetta, Georgia, is a large new company. Gant Medical is an advanced manufacturer of disposable bibs for medical and dental applications. This is the UK company’s first location in North America, and it is expecting to hire 130 employees over the next three years.
Gant Medical is clearly moving in the direction of success because, within its first six months, it had already employed over fifty people. The new business could have been taken anywhere in the world, but the man who started the company was already engaged in the community with another European company named Futura, and his experience with Forsyth County led him to stay and build the business where he was already familiar with the workforce and the community.
One of the reasons for the thriving business environment in the county is the effort made by the chamber to support programs that help to develop a future workforce. The Alliance Academy for Innovation, the county-wide high school in the city of Cumming, is not a traditional high school. Magnet schools offer specialized courses that are often focused on math and science or geared towards the arts, but the Alliance Academy of Innovation also has several unique program pathways.
The mechatronics and engineering pathway is particularly exciting for the county since many of the electromechanical maintenance positions are held by the aging workforce. “If you look at your crystal ball, with all this boom in manufacturing in recent years, one of the things that can put the kibosh on that pretty quickly is if you run out of the folks that can maintain the equipment that makes that possible,” says Long.
The cyber-security pathway is one of very few high school level programs of this nature in Georgia. This industry is becoming increasingly essential for companies in every market, and the county is preparing to fill the demand.
“At this point, all companies have a cyber-security focus. It doesn’t matter if you are a technology company or a manufacturer,” says Long. “As more and more of your pieces of equipment are connected, they are part of that IoT, which is great, but it also potentially creates a vulnerability, so having that cyber-security program at the high school level to create that future workforce is very exciting news for us.”
The innovative school offers a variety of other impressive pathways including an energy program focused on solar and wind technology and an aviation program that allows students to obtain a general aviation pilot’s license before graduation.
Another successful endeavor by the chamber is its National Manufacturing Day. For the past five years in a row, a busload of students from each high school has had the opportunity to explore and tour four local modern manufacturing facilities. The objective is to expose students to more than a dozen operations before they graduate.
The high school mechatronics program became available last August, and it was expected to attract about forty students in its first year. However, one hundred students were interested in the program, and this likely is an effect of National Manufacturing Day. “These kids who are very much interested in engineering or robotics get a chance to see how that is utilized in modern manufacturing facilities, and that has really piqued their interest,” says Long.
One of the main challenges as a growing community is transportation. The traffic is a common issue in the Atlanta Metropolitan Area, and with rapid growth, there tends to be a gap between when a problem occurs and when it can be resolved with road improvements. Five years ago, the voters in Forsyth County passed a $200 million bond referendum to get a step ahead of the necessary construction projects throughout the county. The bond was instrumental in allowing for the widening of the Georgia State Route 400, which is similar to an interstate in Forsyth. The freeway is now six lanes and has interchanges.
Last year, another grant was given to the Atlanta Metro Area to build a dedicated lane on Georgia 400 that will end in Forsyth County at exit 12. The express lane will be an option for people willing to pay a fee to decrease their commute time, with a higher fee during peak travel periods.
The economy in Forsyth is sustained by industrial flex spaces, but it is now looking for alternative areas for development. “As a community, our bread and butter have been large industrial flex buildings in the southern part of the county,” explains Long.
The land in south Forsyth has become more expensive and less amenable for industrial building. The county’s development committee wants to find areas in northern Forsyth that can be used to develop a new large industrial area. The new strategy for the southern part of the county is to develop multi-story offices that will maximize space.
One of the benefits of operating a business in Forsyth is that the base millage rate for calculating property tax is much lower than its neighbors. “Just by crossing that county line into Forsyth County, you immediately get a forty percent plus reduction on your property taxes. Right now, we have the lowest rate of the Metro Atlanta area, and we’d love to keep it that way,” says Long.
Aside from the abundance of business and workforce opportunities, Forsyth County is a great place to live and raise a family. It has the top school system in the state of Georgia. “We have the highest ACT and SAT scores in Georgia, and we also have the highest graduation rate in the state. Easily the biggest draw for Forsyth county is the phenomenal schools that we have in our community,” said Long.
“We have the most educated workforce in the state of Georgia, but unfortunately seventy percent of them get in their cars and leave every day,” explains Long. “If they could find a comparable job, making a comparable salary, but cut their commute from 1.5 hours to thirty minutes and get two hours of their life back per day, many of them would jump at that opportunity.” The chamber hired a senior technology manager almost two years ago to show how serious it is about growing the technology sector, which is where most of its residents work.
Since Scott Devans was appointed the senior technology manager, he has been working with the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), which is the start-up incubator at the Georgia Institute of Technology and one of the first such incubators in the United States. The incubator supports entrepreneurs with the resources and networking required to build a successful business.
Forsyth County already has Digital Ignition, a co-working space that is focused on technology companies and concentrates primarily on IoT, cyber-security, and blockchain. The chamber recently announced that this co-working space will be turned into an incubator in partnership with the ATDC.
Seven years in a row, Forsyth County has been named the healthiest county in Georgia by the Robert Woods Foundation. The reason for this top rating is the outstanding healthcare system with the Northside Hospital network, as well as the county’s well-maintained park system.
The chamber’s vision for the future of Forsyth County is two-fold. It will remain loyal to the advanced manufacturing industry that has built the community up for years, and it will help to grow the technology sector to create more quality workforce opportunities for its growing population.