published Sunday, June 8th, 2014

Chamber urges manufacturing workforce development

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — The message was clearly stated at a recent Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce industrial appreciation event: Tennessee is experiencing a "manufacturing renaissance" but still needs to increase the number of skilled laborers.

More than 100 industry professionals got a state-level perspective on unskilled labor concerns confronting local manufacturers in a presentation by Catherine Glover, president of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Tennessee Manufacturers Association.

"With the mass exodus of baby boomers [from the manufacturing sector] there is a major skills gap and employment gap in the state of Tennessee and, indeed, almost every state in the nation," Glover said. "We need to fix that. It is a crisis, and we need to recognize it as such."

The impact will be keenly felt in the next five years as the baby boom generation retires, especially by smaller companies that often do not consider succession planning, Glover said.

The concern is already on the minds of local economic and government officials.

A recent report in Moody's Analytics indicated that Cleveland's economic performance could be hindered by a lack of skilled labor, said Doug Berry, vice president of industrial development for the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber, in a recent email to local government officials.

"[We] are trending in a positive direction, but we do have vulnerability that can put us off track ... too much dependence on unskilled or low-skilled industry," he said.

The problem is lack of interest and even antipathy toward manufacturing jobs, Glover said.

"People aren't being encouraged into manufacturing or advanced manufacturing," she said. "Our youth don't exactly find it exciting. Parents grew up with it thinking it is icky, dirty hard work."

Solutions may be found by increasing awareness of what modern manufacturing is really about and by ensuring the workforce has the skills to excel, she said.

In support of these efforts, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce is rolling out "Dream It. Do It," an awareness campaign intended to reach people between the ages of 16 and 26, guidance and career counselors, and parents, Glover said.

The goal is to show the next generation of workers that modern manufacturing is "not the back-breaking jobs that we've grown up thinking they are," she said.

Aptitude testing and skill learning also have to be addressed, and that is where community colleges and other post-secondary institutions can help, Glover said.

"There have always been people to fill the void in manufacturing," she said. "Now what we've also learned is that they may not be the most skilled, but they're trainable."

Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at paul.leach.press@gmail.com.

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