published Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Dream it ... build it: Chattanooga-area manufacturers having trouble finding skilled workers

Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry launching statewide campaign to address the concern

Keith Laher
assembles
part of a rocker
recliner at the
La-Z-Boy furniture factory in
Dayton, Tenn.
Keith Laher assembles part of a rocker recliner at the La-Z-Boy furniture factory in Dayton, Tenn.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

IF YOU GO

What: Dream It, Do It session that will teach attendees about manufacturing jobs

Who: Free and open to the public

When: Friday, Dec. 13, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: The INCubator, 100 Cherokee Blvd, Chattanooga

For more information: www.dreamit-doit.com.

Chattanooga manufacturers are having a hard time finding skilled workers.

While the number of Chattanooga-area manufacturing jobs have declined about 30 percent since 2000, the gap between what skills the workforce offers and what skills manufacturers need has widened, making hiring increasingly difficult.

"Chattanooga is becoming a tougher place to find the kind of employees in our plant that we need," Miller Industries CEO Jeff Badgley recently told the Times Free Press' Edge magazine. "Historically we're finding it harder and harder to find those employees who have the skill set to build product or do the processes that our product needs."

And it's not just Chattanooga -- the whole state of Tennessee is joining a national campaign to boost the numbers of skilled manufacturing workers and change public perceptions of manufacturing jobs. The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry is launching Dream It. Do It. TN., a program to promote and encourage careers in the manufacturing sector. The Chamber is partnering with the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service, Center for Industrial Services and ASSA ABLOY Door to launch the statewide initiative.

“We are pleased to announce a deep grassroots strategy to encourage our youth to look at careers in our manufacturing sector. Whether you are a college, technical college or high school graduate manufacturing offers high wages, good benefits and stable employment,” said Catherine Glover, President of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

The 'Dream It, Do It' campaign kicks off in Chattanooga with an information session Friday afternoon that's open to business, civic and community leaders. The session aims to give manufacturers recruitment tools and resources while informing students and parents about manufacturing careers.

"Today's manufacturing is not your grandfather's manufacturing," said AJ Jorgenson, communication director at The Manufacturing Institute, the group behind the "Dream It, Do It" campaign. "And that's where Dream It, Do It comes into play -- to educate students and their influences, like teachers, parents and guidance counselors."

A 2011 study by The Manufacturing Institute found that 67 percent of U.S. manufacturers were facing a moderate to severe shortage of skilled and available workers. And more than half of 1,100 manufacturers polled said they expected the shortage to get worse.

Jorgenson said three major factors play into the growing nationwide shortage: demographics, education and perception. Much of the traditional manufacturing workforce is retiring, she said. And schools aren't offering classes to bolster manufacturing and technical skills. Jorgenson said that adds to the false perception that manufacturing can't be a worthwhile career.

At the Dayton La-Z-Boy plant, general manager Bimbo McCawley said he's had a hard time finding steady, reliable workers for about the last five years. But just this past year, he's started to find a higher caliber worker, he said. Part of the turnaround is a program he's set up with area high schools.

Students entering their senior year of high school can come into the plant and work four hours a day, four days a week the summer before their senior year, McCawley said. The students learn how to do the job and if they're a good fit, McCawley will hire them full-time -- at between $15 and $18 per hour, with full benefits -- as soon as the students graduate. That translates into a starting salary of about $30,000 to $38,000.

"I went to the principals, the superintendants and the guidance counselors and I said 'I'm not looking for your straight-A students who are going to college,'" he said. "'I'm looking for the student that's a good solid C student who probably won't go to college but is here every day, has a good attitude and is working their tail off to get that C.' Those are the kind of people I want to come work for me."

Nationally, the average annual manufacturing compensations is $63,000, about 20 percent higher than the rest of the economy, according to The Manufacturing Institute.

Badgley said a lack of skilled workers in Chattanooga is part of the reason Miller Industries expanded operations this year in Greeneville, Tenn., instead of at the company's headquarters in Ooltewah. He said manufacturing offers many career opportunities, despite common perceptions.

"It's a mindset in the nation that manufacturing is not a core competency of this nation," he said, adding later, "Hopefully younger people will start waking up to the fact that manufacturing can be a great job."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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