Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge recently recalled an incident late last year when representatives of a South Korean auto parts manufacturer visited Jonesborough to scout the Washington County Industrial Park as a possible site for a new plant.
Eldridge said company officials had placed Washington County on its short list of likely locations for expansion, and seemed to be impressed by what they had seen.
But the mood shifted when company officials began to inquire about the quality of the county’s workforce.
The county mayor said the company’s leaders wanted to know: “How are we going to hire 1,000 skilled workers for the plant?”
Eldridge said a consultant from KPMG, a professional service company and one of this nation’s four largest auditors, was present for the discussion and later told him the South Korean firm was well aware of the competency of the local workforce.
“He told me that this region has a reputation, and I shouldn’t for one minute think they didn’t know our workforce is lacking,” he said.
That reputation, Eldridge said, is of a workforce that is uneducated and unhealthy.
“In South Korea, that would make you unemployable,” he said.
Setting an example
Eldridge said that incident was still fresh in his mind earlier this year when he heard Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke speak of the success his city has had in addressing its own workforce inadequacies.
“Chattanooga and Hamilton County didn’t ignore the problem,” Eldridge said. “They hired consultants and began to work with educators, business leaders and government officials to find solutions. I think we have the opportunity to turn the tide by doing the same here.”
As a result of its workforce development initiative, Chattanooga has been able to lure higher-paying jobs to the area. Eldridge said today nearly 82 percent of the employers pay “a living wage” of $19 or more an hour.
“When they (Chattanooga officials) made the commitment to improve the quality of the education of their workforce, they also made a commitment to bring in jobs that would improve the quality of life,” he said.
Eldridge said Washington County and the other eight counties of the First Tennessee Development District have embarked on a similar ambitious workforce development program, and will be studying what has and hasn’t worked in Chattanooga.
“It’s not the chicken or the egg,” he said. “What comes first is the quality of the workforce. That’s what brings the better-paying jobs.”
Berke said he and other Chattanooga leaders may not have all the answers to developing a skilled workforce, but he does believe they are asking the right questions.That includes asking employers to describe the skills and aptitude level they expect from potential employees.
Using that information, Berke said Chattanooga has developed high school programs to prepare students for the workplace of today. The city holds six-week “boot camps” to certify students as “job ready,” putting them at the front of the line for employment by manufacturers like Volkswagen.
And some city recreation centers also double as community education centers to help students learn the high-tech skills they will need to land a job with a higher salary.
Berke said Chattanooga also asks employers to offer a living wage ($21 an hour for a household with one adult and one child) before being eligible to receive any infrastructure or tax incentives from his city. He said most employers have been receptive to what he calls a “carrot without a stick” approach.
“We have placed a real focus on wages,” he said. “Yes, unemployment is down now, but we want people to have jobs that do more than just pay the bills.”
He said the entire South has historically recruited “low-wage and low-skilled jobs that have not been good for our region.” Berke said improving the quality of his city’s workforce has helped to fuel an economic boom in Chattanooga.
“When I make more money, I spend more money in local businesses and restaurants,” Berke said. “That’s why it’s important to put higher wages at the center of your economic plan.”
Making the mark
Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable said his county has “always been proud of its manufacturing jobs,” which is understandable since it is home to Eastman Chemical Co., one of the state’s largest manufacturers. But now, Venable said his county is proud to say it is helping to blaze the trail in workforce development in the region.
Thanks to programs at Northeast State Community College and the First Tennessee Development District, students in Sullivan County are earning proficiency “certificates in welding before they even graduate from high school.” He said these and other technology skills being taught to students in his county will allow them to compete someday for jobs at the Aerospace Park now being developed at Tri-Cities Airport.
“We want employers to come to this area, not for cheap labor, but because we offer a trainable and skilled workforce,” Venable said. “I’m proud to say we are ahead of the curve.”
That’s because Venable said Sullivan County is more than a year ahead of other counties in the FTDD’ s workforce readiness certification initiative. Lottie Ryans, who heads FTDD’s workforce and literacy programs, said the objective is prepare students to enter the workforce by teaching them the skills needed to obtain an ACT National Career Readiness Certification.
To earn that certification, students are tested on being able to comprehend workplace documents, graphic literacy and applied math.
“The questions are incredibly hard,” Ryans said. “Students can earn a bronze, silver, gold or platinum certification. Platinum is the highest, and Eastman Chemical requires a platinum to apply for a job.”
Ryans said being a work-ready community is a major advantage in economic development.
“Only 6 percent of the counties in Tennessee have reached that certification,” she said.