Behind the scenes
What a shortage of workers on film sets in Georgia says about America
THE recent arrival of aliens and murderous youth in suburban Atlanta might seem like cause for concern. But they are merely characters in films shot at the Atlanta Media Campus and Studios, the largest complex of its kind outside California. The lot has hosted the final two instalments of “The Hunger Games” and “The Fifth Wave”, an upcoming science-fiction film. What ought to worry local residents is Georgia's inability to produce workers who can build the sets, run the wires or manage the sound for such films. This skills shortage may endanger the $4 billion or so that Jim Jacoby, whose firm plans to redevelop the complex, reckons the film industry could bring to the state this year.
Georgia offers generous tax incentives to lure production companies. They can receive a credit for up to 30% of the costs incurred while making movies, as long as they spend more than $500,000. This convinced Mathew Hayden to move his firm, Cinipix, from California to Georgia. But Mr Hayden still imports many workers from Florida and New York. “It's a big concern,” he says. The state's movie business will only prove as profitable as its workers prove employable.
Georgia's skills shortage goes beyond the film industry. For every four tradesmen that retire just one takes their place, even though the state's unemployment rate hovers around 7.4%, over a point higher than the national rate. But a similar problem, albeit in less acute form, is in evidence across America. More than half of the country's tradesmen are aged over 45. According to the Department of Labour, America will need 41,700 more cement masons, 114,700 more electricians and 218,200 more carpenters by 2022. The government already spends around $17 billion a year trying to close what the president, Barack Obama, calls the “skills gap”. On July 22nd Mr Obama signed laws that he said would make job-training programmes that receive federal money “more effective, more responsive to employers and more accountable for results”.
One such programme is Go Build Georgia, which teaches teenagers a trade. But efforts to train young people as plumbers or pipe-fitters run up against concern from parents. Instead of being proud to raise a future welder, “everyone wants to believe that their child will go to Harvard”, says Matthew Gambill, the director of the Georgia Association for Career and Technical Education. Despite the lower cost of a skills-based education and the solid job prospects, enrolment at technical colleges has dropped 23% since recession-stricken students clamoured for entry in 2010.
Still, Georgia is pouring money into training, and targeting industries such as the movie business that are particularly short of skilled labour. It spent $24m last year on the teaching of trades in schools, while the state's technical colleges received $318m. Some of these institutions are already collaborating with film studios to design specialist courses. Lee Thomas, the deputy commissioner of Georgia's film, music and digital entertainment office, says a stand-alone academy is also in the works for those who wish to become stars behind the scenes.
Mr Jacoby, though, is taking matters into his own hands. By next summer he wants the Atlanta Media Campus to host a school that will teach students how to work on a film set. American firms spent $162 billion training their employees in 2012. The success of Mr Jacoby's investment in Georgia may depend on whether he can bridge its skills gap.