The state’s head of economic and community development spoke to Dickson business leaders last week about Tennessee job market trends and the skills and education needed to fill those jobs.
Randy Boyd, founder of Knoxville-based Radio Systems Corp. that produces thousands of pet products such as Invisible Fence and PetSafe, started in his position as commissioner of state economic and community development last year.
Boyd talked about a possible future manufacturing job labor shortage, companies currently unable to find workers with the needed skills, lack of rural broadband access, and what the ECD office does.
Boyd said the state is facing a manufacturing worker shortage a decade from now.
Currently, he said, one out of every eight Tennesseans — 340,000 employees —works in manufacturing.
Nearly 80,000 of those are now 55 years old, he said.
“We are going to lose 77,000 workers (from the work force) in the next 10 years,” Boyd said.
The commissioner also noted that the manufacturing opportunities also growing.
“These aren’t the type jobs we might think of in the past where they are low-skilled or dangerous jobs. These are high quality, high-paying and high-demand jobs,” Boyd said.
“It’s important for us to be able to recruit young people,” Boyd said. “They can go for free (referring to the Tennessee Promise program), we just have to make sure they realize that these jobs are available.”
Tennessee Promise is both a scholarship and mentoring program that provides two years of tuition-free attendance at a community or technical college in Tennessee.
“The biggest thing (companies) want to talk about, sometimes the only thing they want to talk about, is the workforce,” Boyd said. “Where am I going to get my workers today, next year, and years in the future?”
Boyd said volunteering as a mentor is a huge need and important part of TN Promise.
“The most important thing…is to be a mentor,” Boyd said.
Students who are the first in their family to attend college often find the process “scary,” he said.
“Too often, these kids are hearing, ‘People in our family. People in community, we don’t go to college. That’s not what we do,’” Boyd said. “That’s why mentoring is so important. You will get back more than you put in.”
Boyd’s emphasis on education — and the focus of many state leaders — is partially due to companies’ desire for a more skilled workforce. When companies bring up this issue to Boyd, he said he asks if they have contacted the local technical college about a partnership. He said often there is no communication between those companies and the statewide Tennessee College of Applied Technology faculty.
However, he said in Dickson, that’s not the case. Boyd cited Truform, which is expanding, as a local industry that stays in contact with the Dickson TCAT for employees.
Boyd said a huge divide is developing between metropolitan and rural areas for job opportunities, largely due to internet accessibility.
“As a business, you can do business anywhere in the world from anywhere in the world today. But the key element…is broadband access,” Boyd said. “You absolutely have to have broadband access.”
Boyd said 34 percent of the rural community population does not have broadband access.
“So we have this huge digital divide. If we don’t solve that, we aren’t going to be able to solve this rural crisis that we have,” Boyd said.
Boyd said companies will call his department seeking sites to possibly locate a business. The company spokesperson will have specifications, like acreage size and nearby rail or interstate, he said.
“The trick is having that site to match the specifications,” Boyd said. “There are a lot of communities across our state that don’t have sites.”
Boyd said Dickson did have those sites and was smart to invest them previously.
Boyd said the future of the state economy will be largely dependent on the small business start ups.
“I think the movers and shakers of our state 20 years from now will be those entrepreneurs that are starting today,” Boyd said. “They are not going to get the headlines when they open up that little shop. But over the long-term, that’s the future of our state. We recognize that and put a lot of emphasis on that.”
by Chris Gadd, firstname.lastname@example.org