About 100 work force development professionals met in Chattanooga on Wednesday in what was called a milestone meeting to help the area get ready for Volkswagen.
Tom Edd Wilson, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce chief executive, said the city over the last four years competed for two of the largest economic development projects in the country — Toyota and then Volkswagen.
“When you play at the level we’re playing at, with companies of the size that we are recruiting for this community there is no subject more important than the readiness of our work force,” Mr. Wilson said. “It is a critical part of economic development.”
The professionals gathered to learn about an initiative using employability assessment tool called WorkKeys, which is produced by testing company ACT. The skills assessment test helps to determine what needs to be done to prepare the area’s work force for the Volkswagen plant and its supplier companies.
Dr. Bill McMillan, formerly with the City Colleges of Chicago and the event’s keynote speaker, talked about how the Chicago area worked to train thousands of residents there for jobs at the expansion of a Ford assembly plant and its supplier companies.
“One of the reasons I proselytize on WorkKeys is it helps them to identify the specific skill sets needed to learn how to do a specific job,” he said. “We need to identify, working backwards, from what is needed in the work force back to what is needed in the individual.”
The event targeted people who will be working with individuals to improve their skills, such as professionals who work in work force development agencies or other human service agencies.
Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey said the Chattanooga community was blessed.
“In a time when the economy of this country is going (down), ours is not going this way because of things that are happening here, some opportunities that are coming,” Mr. Ramsey said. “It’s incumbent upon us to prepare our work force to take those jobs, because if we don’t those jobs will be taken by somebody else.”
Volkswagen plans to hire 2,000 people at its Chattanooga assembly plant, which is to start operations in late 2010.
Since Chattanooga and surrounding communities do not already have workers in place who are skilled in automotive manufacturing, employers will have to find employees who can learn in an “on-the-job” teaching scenario, said Sheila Boyington, president of software company Thinking Media and one of the event’s organizers.
WorkKeys measures the foundational skills necessary to be trainable in specific jobs, and then gauge individuals on the same scale.
Joe A. Rowe, a onetime production manager at the DuPont plant, talked about DuPont’s use of the WorkKeys program in conjunction with Chattanooga State Technical Community College.
“The WorkKeys program was a tremendous success when we needed it,” Mr. Rowe said.
The program helped to cut the time new employees needed for training and, once they were on the job, reduced the number of errors in the workplace.
Randy Lane of Eastman Chemical in Kingsport, Tenn., said using the WorkKeys program along with training software KeyTrain saved the company more than $600 per hired employee by making the hiring process more efficient.
As the company looks to hire an additional 1,500 employees over the next several years, Eastman could save close to $1 million in hiring costs, he said.
Scott Stimart of ACT Inc. said the work force needs to know what skills are required to work in the plant, how and where do they acquire these skills and that is the connection between the two.
“They need to know what math skills, what reading skills, what technology skills, what communication skills,” he said. “You define that with a job profile or a job analysis, you then test your individuals to those skills and you train to the gaps, which is exactly what WorkKeys does.”