Wed, February 21, 2024

Workforce Study causes debate in CSRA business community

160 business leaders packed into a Columbia County Chamber meeting to hear the results of a tri-county workforce study. (Photo by Neil Gordon)

Business leaders agree there is a serious and complicated workforce issue in the CSRA—and they have different views on how to solve it.

Gary Gibson of Gary’s Hamburgers says the government is de-incentivizing out of work employees; Patrick Reynolds of Cross Link Consulting says workforce training needs tweaking; and Robbie Bennett of the Columbia County Economic Development Authority points to many factors in a newly released study, commissioned by government agencies in Richmond, Aiken, and Columbia Counties.

Hospitality in the CSRA


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the leisure and hospitality industry is one of the hardest-hit locally, with employment numbers off 4,500 from its peak.

Specifically, in the restaurant trade, the problem flows all the way down the food chain from suppliers to the restaurant.

“It’s much harder to find good help than it was 37 years ago when I started,” said Gary Gibson, owner of five Gary’s Hamburger restaurants—including the newest in the old “Popeye’s” on Wrightsboro Road.

The restaurant has been delayed in opening since December 2020 due to the staff shortage in Augusta. “I’ve spent $350,000 on remodeling and can’t open.” Gibson is currently down 3 to 4 managers across his four open restaurants.

In the fall of 2020, Gibson posted some full-time and management openings on the Indeed job portal. He got great response with poor results.

“80-85 people responded…we were only able to reach 18 or 19, and we set up 9 or 10 interviews. Two people showed up. We hired one. They never came to work,” he added.

The owner of Gary’s Hamburgers in Martinez gave his small staff a much needed break while the exterior was remodeled for four days.

To give their tired and valued employees time off, Gibson and other CSRA restaurateurs are simplifying the labor process. They’re doing that any number of ways including closing early some days or limiting menu items, restricting dining room service, or even closing on Sundays.

Gibson is an unabashed Republican supporter who has particularly admired Presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump for their abilities to get results. However, he feels Trump missed the mark in the midst of the pandemic. “You cannot pay people to stay home,” Gibson added.

With stimulus checks and extra unemployment monies provided— the retail and hospitality industries have been the hardest hit.

“There’s no motivation to go to work when you get the same money to sit home.”

Shortly after concluding the phone interview with Gibson at 10:30 AM one day—he called back to the Augusta Business Daily.

“I just got off the phone with my food supplier. They were supposed to bring food to our restaurants before 7 this morning. They are still delayed because only 60 of their 100 drivers came to work. The manager told me the drivers got their stimulus checks and he’s having trouble getting them to come to work.”

Tri-County Government Workforce Study

There are almost 500,000 potential working adults in the CSRA. Half or more are not employed, according to Robbie Bennett, executive director of the Development Authority of Columbia County.

He presented the results of the tri-county workforce study on Wednesday, March 17th to a capacity crowd of 160 business leaders as part of a luncheon series organized by the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce.

His colleagues in Richmond and Aiken counties also worked with national survey companies like Garner Economics and EMSI Partners interviewing employers from 58 different job sectors.

“Incentives always make the deal better, but our workforce is the key,” Bennett told the audience.

Bennett said if our community got 10-20 percent of those not working back to work—it would create about 25-50,000 more jobs. He says those can be filled by retirees, military spouses, stay-at-home parents, those who are living in poverty, and even those being released from prison.

Construction jobs are more plentiful than in other industries.

From 2014 to 2019, the construction industry added more than 1,000 workers.

That is a bigger increase than healthcare, hotelfood positions, and manufacturing.

Bennett says the study indicated a serious education and training void to fill. Study results included poor high school work-based learning participation, with a “significant number” of high school graduates not ready to take on full-time work in the community.

The survey provided five recommendations:

  • Seek talent through unique and underserved populations.
  • Advocate for building a regional high school work-based learning ecosystem.
  • Development and implementation of a world-class soft skills program.
  • Develop better family-forward employee policies focusing on health benefits.
  • Develop a plan to keep Ft. Gordon retirees in the CSRA.

What About Cyber Jobs?

The audience at the Chamber meeting guessed that the ITCyber space yielded the largest increase in jobs in the CSRA over the last five years.

Patrick Reynolds is the founder and President of Cross Link Consulting, an I.T. and Cybersecurity firm looking for qualified technicians every three to six months

“It is hard to track because it is not a workforce classification code,” said Bennett.

Cross Link Consulting President Patrick Reynolds is a valued business partner of Augusta Business Daily and an experienced employer.

Reynolds is overseeing the growth at his 17-year-old IT and Cybersecurity firm—even adding former U.S Attorney from the Southern District Bobby Christine as a Senior Advisor and former Goodwill, Chamber of Commerce, and staffing executive Gordon Renshaw as Director of Development.

Reynolds just hired one Cyber technician and is seeking another and he has had mixed success hiring from area schools and universities.

He believes he and his colleagues in the ITCyber space could help with the curriculum and teaching. “Who better to instill real-world applications and instill values than those of us in the field,” said Reynolds.

Reynolds thinks it is a “win-win.” Students get a different level of training and employers like Cross Link Consulting get to make connections with potential Cyber support staff and share their culture and values—which is Job One for Reynold’s firm.

Adding to the hiring challenge in his field is a nationwide shortage of IT and Cyber professionals—and this can create turnover here in Augusta for those who get recruited outside of the CSRA.

“There are 3.5 million unfilled Cyber positions in the world,” said Reynolds.

To reach the subjects in this story, email them below:

Gary Gibson, Owner Gary’s Hamburgers

Patrick Reynolds, President Cross Link Consulting

Robbie Bennett, Executive Director

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