Factory Town Works on Education in Dalton, Ga., Community Efforts to Upgrade the Work Force Involve Labor and Management

Article excerpt

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. …