Employers begging for welders and machinists, workforce solutions summit officials say

Chattanooga City Councilman Larry Grohn makes a point Friday as U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann looks on during a strategy session on "recruiting a qualified workforce" at the Workforce Solutions Summit at Chattanooga State Community College's Health Science Center.

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Welders are in such demand in Chattanooga that they get snapped up by employers even before they graduate from Chattanooga State Community College.

"We can't put out enough welders here in Chattanooga," said James Barrott, director of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT), which offers training in welding and about two dozen other vocations at Chattanooga State.

Ditto for machinists, who have their pick of jobs when they finish the year-long training program at Chattanooga State's TCAT.

"We just can't find enough people to go into it," Barrott said.

Good, high-paying manufacturing jobs go begging in the Chattanooga area as Baby Boomers retire and young people steer clear of vocational jobs - that was one of the main themes at the Workforce Solutions Summit, a five-hour event held Friday at Chattanooga State by U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, and attended by about 100 officials from education, industry and government.

"It's harder and harder for us to find welders," said Bruce Nelson, an official at Komatsu, which manufactures hydraulic excavators and forestry equipment at its Chattanooga plant on Signal Mountain Road. Nelson sat on a panel of four industry members who spoke and fielded questions.

Komatsu finally ran ads in the newspaper's sports section that mentioned the high wages that Nelson said Komatsu pays.

"We were able to steal away a lot of employees," he said.

Ideas to fix the shortage of skilled employees included brushing up the image of factory work, or as ReVonda Hodge of McKee Foods, the Collegedale-based maker of Little Debbie snack products put it, "Manufacturing is for the students that didn't do [in school] as well."

"That's not the case," said Hodge, who also sat on the industry panel. "We've got to change the image, I believe, of manufacturing."

Tennessee has taken steps in the right direction, Fleischmann and other officials said, including through two new programs: Tennessee Promise, which will cover the costs for two years of community college for all Tennessee high school students, and Tennessee Reconnect, which will send any Tennessee resident who's at least 24 years old tuition-free to one of the state's 27 TCATs, including the one at Chattanooga State.

Barrott suggested to Fleischmann, who emceed the event, that Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect could serve as models for the nation to follow.

Other potential solutions suggested Friday included letting students know about career opportunities in industry, even as early as grade school.

"We've got to get out into the schools," Fleischmann said. "We can't start too early talking about careers."

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who spoke as a leadership panelist, said some people think that training workers is the employers' obligation.

"There's an argument that says the market should just take care of this," he said.

But Berke thinks a skilled workforce benefits everyone.

Last year, Chattanooga had the third-highest growth in income among U.S. cities of its size, he said. Yet Tennessee still ranks 45th in country in household incomes, Berke said.

"It shows you how far we have to go," he said. "When workers make more money, it helps feed money into your economy. We want to make sure more people in our community have access to opportunity."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/MeetsForBusiness or twitter.com/meetforbusiness or 423-757-6651.