Gov. Haslam discusses state's work force needs

Rick Wagner • Jul 17, 2012 at 11:20 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Tri-Cities industries need more educated and trained workers with a good work ethic in the welding, electrical and other trades.

And area post-secondary institutions could use more money for equipment and other expenses to expand training programs, some of which have a one-year or more waiting period.

Those were two bits of information that came out of a work force development mini-summit of sorts, led Tuesday morning by Gov. Bill Haslam at Northeast State Community College. He said it was the first of seven to be held across the state.

“This is the very first of a statewide conversation,” Haslam said at the start of the one-hour session, which included pre-K-through-college educators, industry officials, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, House Speaker Beth Harwell, and other state lawmakers. “This is in no way a dog and pony show.”

Haslam said he learned at the recent National Governors Association meeting that states have the same problem: Jobs are available, but not enough qualified graduates are available to fill them.

“We’ve got great collaborative effort,” said Parker Smith, vice president and general manager of manufacturing support and quality for Kingsport-based Eastman Chemical Co.’s Tennessee operations.

Smith said industry, area post-secondary schools, local government and the state work together. For instance, he cited the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing in downtown Kingsport, which helps train workers for area industry and is a collaborative effort.

“I would stack my technical employees based against any paper mill and any industrial facility in the Southeast,” said Charlie Floyd, vice president and general manager of the Domtar paper plant in Kingsport.

However, Northeast State President Janice Gilliam said the school had 120 students in its welding program but could not provide candidates for 30 open welding positions.

Floyd said a gap exists between the available work force and what those potential workers need to know how to do, as well as what they are willing to do.

“Science and math is very important to us because of the processes we run,” Smith said, while Gilliam and East Tennessee State University Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Bert Bach said math is the biggest academic issue for students. He and others suggested students learn starting at middle school what it takes to get a modern industrial job.

Bach said every professional program at ETSU has an advisory group from business and industry, and ETSU provides many graduates in information technology and accounting for Eastman.

Haslam said the Tennessee Board of Regents, University of Tennessee system and Tennessee Higher Education Commission plan to improve dissemination of data on available jobs.

Bach said surveys of graduates and employers try to track former students working in their field of study.

Greene County Director of Schools Vicki Kirk said students need to know their technical career options as early as sixth grade.

“I think that lack of purpose, lack of hope, is our biggest obstacle,” Kirk said.

She said a barrier to career technical education is a one-year or more waiting list at the Tennessee Technology Centers, including ones in Elizabethton and Hamblen County.

James King, vice chancellor of the TTCs, said the problem seems to be centered around the Tri-Cities and other metropolitan areas of the state and is equipment-intensive to solve.

Dean Blevins, director of the TTC in Elizabethton, said students must learn early they need to be on the right track with math and science and should apply as early as their sophomore year because of waits up to three years in some programs.

Floyd said many high school graduates, when told that they need one-year certificates or two-year associate degrees, aren’t willing or able to get the needed education, which includes seventh- and eighth-grade math skills.

“About 40 percent of them don’t have it (mastery of seventh- or eighth-grade math) even though they have high school degrees,” Floyd said. “They just go away. They lose interest. They are not motivated.”

And sometimes even those who are qualified lack a work ethic, including showing up, showing up on time, and working a full shift.

That work ethic not instilled in young adults as they grew up is a “major obstacle” in finding employees, said Alexander Borla, founder and CEO of Borla Performance Industries in Carter County.

“We can’t turn them into human beings,” Borla said.

As for curricula taught, Gilliam said Northeast State works with area industry to develop a curriculum meaningful to prospective employers, such as a new energy specialist or electric lineman program starting soon.

Gilliam said many former Eastman and Domtar employees are adjunct or full-time faculty, including two retired Eastman workers with doctorates in chemistry. Low faculty salaries are a roadblock but are being addressed by a salary study, she said.

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