Factory Town Works on Education

In Dalton, Ga., community efforts to upgrade the work force involve labor and management

HERE at the southern tip of the Appalachians, the colonial craft of hand-tufted bedspreads and rugs has evolved into the computerized manufacturing process of giant carpet mills that roll out 65 percent of the nation's floor covering. But when the workers - those hourly wage factory employees, more than half of whom never finished high school and 20 percent of whom are functionally illiterate - didn't keep pace with that change, Dalton industry leaders decided to make education of the work force a permanent part of their business. This community's business stake in adult education resembles what education reformers are prescribing for United States industry on a national level.

"There's a greatly increasing interest in training front-line workers because it's not enough to just train supervisors and managers," says Brenda Bell, director of business services for the National Alliance of Business in Washington.

The increasing interest in front-line workers looks like this in Dalton:

When a high-school-equivalency-degree course was offered at H & S Whiting Inc. last November, nearly half of the employees of the small limestone-grinding mill, including the owner's 26-year-old son, enrolled.

Three hundred and nine companies in this rural industrial area have signed a Chamber of Commerce pact bucking the long tradition of hiring high school dropouts in factory jobs.

By 9 a.m. on any weekday, the parking lot at the Dalton Adult Learning Center is jammed, and there's a waiting line for the basic reading and math courses offered on computers donated by the business community.

The increasingly sophisticated equipment that requires factory workers to use as much brain as brawn, combined with alarms sounded by the education studies of the 1980s, spurred the Dalton Whitfield Chamber of Commerce to create its Education is Essential Foundation. For a decade, the foundation has become increasingly involved in organizational as well as heavy financial commitments to the basic education of Dalton-area adults.

A landmark study released last June, "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages," surveyed more than 2,000 workers and managers in the US and six other industrial nations. Findings reconfirmed what reformers have been saying for nearly a decade: Business must pick up where schools fail.

The study was done by the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, an ad-hoc group of corporate, government, union, and education leaders from all over the country.

Put together by the National Center on Education and the Economy, a public-policy think tank in Rochester, N.Y., the report concluded that American industry will need a more highly skilled non-college-educated "front-line" work force in order to compete internationally.

In 1982, Dalton-area business leaders began a campaign to convince factory owners as well as factory workers that front-line work requires more education than ever before. The commitment has grown from a promotional campaign to a major business-community investment aimed at ensuring that every adult in the Dalton area has a high school degree by the year 2000.

In 1983, the Education is Essential Foundation spearheaded recruitment of companies to sign a pledge not to hire teenagers before they graduate from high school.

But the majority of adult workers didn't have high school degrees. So the foundation moved to develop job-site General Educational Development (GED) programs. Of the 700 students who completed high school last year in the Dalton area, nearly a third were adults receiving high school equivalency certificates. Many of the certificates were received through job-site classes.

The factory-site classes are popular because the setting is familiar and the worker is not asked to return to a formal school structure, which was the setting for earlier failures, says Terry Cullifer, superintendent of the Whitfield County School District.

Indeed, Stacy Henderson, who works at H & S Whiting, where he mills limestone used in carpet backing, says he left high school because he hadn't learned to read or do math and couldn't do the work.

He enrolled in the factory GED program because he wanted to help his children in school, and because he realized not being able to divide numbers "stopped me from doing everything." In four months, he has moved from a third-grade reading level to a ninth-grade level.

It became apparent that many adults were like Stacy, who couldn't read, write, or calculate math well enough to even qualify for these GED courses. So last summer, the costlier commitment of basic education was undertaken through a $500,000 business-sponsored program to offer one-on-one tutoring as well as computer tutoring in basic reading and math.

THE new emphasis on basic skills has caused a tripling of adult-education participation in just this school year, says Nolan Nix, director of adult literacy at Dalton College.

"This is not a one-time thing," Mr. Cullifer says, adding that it has become clear that a permanent commitment from the business community is necessary.

"We reduced from 50 percent to 30 percent one high school's dropout rate [in the early 1980s], but with the economic expansion of the mid-1980s we watched it creep back up to the 40s," he says of the need for continued diligence. He explains that the local rite of passage here through the generations has been to leave school for a factory job as soon as possible.

This tradition was as hard to buck among employees as it was with employers, says John Campbell, vice president of AA Food Services and a founder of the Education is Essential program. Especially in economic good times, when factories need employees, it is difficult to persuade a manager trying to meet immediate productivity goals that hiring a teen away from the classroom will ultimately cost the company money, he says.

Remembering the early difficulties of recruiting factory owners to sign the pledge not to hire dropouts, Mr. Campbell says, "One plant owner said that the only thing a kid does when he waits two years to finish school is lose two years on the seniority list."

"It has taken a long time for business and industry to realize education does have an impact on production," says Barbara Van Horn, assistant director of the Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy at Pennsylvania State University.

Most money spent on employee training, she says, is spent on management employees and not entry-level or line workers. But she notes that the institute has had a "dramatic increase" in inquiries from businesses wanting to develop work-site basic training for line workers.

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