Chattanooga's high tech manufacturing industry is growing, but area education and industry leaders are noticing that the local workforce isn't always ready to go to work at some of the Scenic City's fastest growing employers.
To help address this problem and continue a conversation already going on across the city, the Enterprise Gateway Council of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce recently hosted its annual BOOST Summit to address workforce development.
According to a panel of six representatives, some of the key areas for improvement across the city include developing a workforce with stronger technical skills, eliminating an outdated stigma associated with manufacturing work, reaching out to students sooner about career opportunities and developing clearer pathways for people interested in the manufacturing industry.
For companies like Alstom Power, finding skilled local labor has been difficult.
"The equipment that we have is very specialized," said human resources manager Heather Stalvey. "You won't find it anywhere else in the surrounding area. We had to relocate a lot of those individuals, the machinists and welders, from as far away as Oregon."
Since opening the Chattanooga Alstom plant, she said the company has partnered with Chattanooga State to develop a program for potential employees with a high school diploma or GED.
Kenny Fuquea, Santek Waste Management vice president of business development, said he also sees a lack of potential employees with technical skills.
"We struggle a lot with mechanics," he said. "We don't see a lot of people coming in and wanting to work in the diesel mechanic field."
Even basic skills like arriving to work on time or wearing the proper uniform have been issues for local employers, according to the panelists.
Stalvey said the two biggest reasons employees have left Alstom since it began operations in Chattanooga have been local employees' difficulty working in a diverse multicultural environment and the inability to consistently arrive to work on time or at all.
Communication skills have also been lacking in the local workforce, said Stalvey and Mike Collins and Associates Inc. founder Mike Collins.
"The ability to communicate in something other than an email or text is huge," he said. "Because we are a tech company we end up hiring a lot of young people. They want to solve a problem with an email or text and that's not always acceptable."
Overcoming stigmas about manufacturing or the types of careers available through technical programs has also been part of the problem in recruiting a talented workforce in the area.
"A lot of people don't have any idea what manufacturing is these days," said Chattanooga State Vice President of Economic and Community Development Ben Ubamadu. "People don't realize that it's not dirt floors, that it's high tech and advanced."
Dr. Danielle Mezera, Tennessee Department of Education director of career and technical education, said that guidance counselors don't always have the best and most up to date information to give students who might be interested in a technical field. The lack of information may play a part in the continuation of negative stereotypes.
"Our guidance counselors are very stretched," she said. "They often don't have enough time to do the legwork and research to build the information we want all of our students and teachers to be aware of. A lot of parents want their kids to grow up and go to college and get a four-year degree largely because they don't always know what all the offerings are. We are going to be investing funds into communications, public relations and marketing to address this."
Exposing students to possible alternative career paths earlier in their education and developing programs throughout the county that prepare students for technical work may be part of the solution moving forward, local leaders said.
"If we don't do something radically different in this country, we're not going to be where we need to be in the next five years or the next 50 years," said Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith. "We've got to invest time and energy into talking to our students at a much younger age. We've got to talk to middle schoolers about careers."
Ubamadu said Chattanooga State is constantly working to partner with local industries to develop training programs that meet the needs of both local students and industries.
"At colleges or universities we're not going to be able to afford the latest equipment," he said. "We need to partner with your business or your company. At Chattanooga State we're very focused on making sure we deliver the product our consumers want, which in this case is students."
Another part of the puzzle for local education and industrial leaders is helping potential workers find their path to a career in manufacturing.
Southeast Tennessee, including the Chattanooga region, was recently selected as a Pathways to Prosperity site. This multistate, multiyear initiative promotes school partnerships with public and private interests to develop a workforce that is better prepared to face the high unemployment rate across the country.
"[Pathways is a] purposeful braiding and directed focus on what education from a K-12 needs to be," said Mezera. "What we really have right now is there are a lot of leaks or breakdowns in this pipeline. Somewhere along the line we lose people. We lose students. We lose interest in what we should be focusing on, and from and industrial perspective we don't know how to do the best recruiting. Pathways is intended to direct that."