Tennessee sites seek skilled workers

11/16/2016

To a younger Roger Martinez, manufacturing jobs signaled long hours and repetitive assignments on an assembly line. His father, who works in a local bread factory, wanted him to pursue an office job instead.

But when Martinez, now 21, found a mechatronics program at Motlow State Community College in Smyrna, Tenn., that could allow him to gain technical and electrical skills that are in high demand, he enrolled. Through internships and classes, he has learned welding, machine maintenance and robotics, giving him confidence he will find a good-paying job when he graduates.

“I see a lot of opportunities,” Martinez said. “Yesterday, I was at a job fair for the industry. I see a lot of different, growing companies that are hiring.”

Tennessee manufacturers are desperate for more young people like Martinez. Throughout the state and around the nation, the sector is rebounding from the depths of the Great Recession. But the industry is grappling with a labor shortage that could be about to get much worse as older manufacturing workers draw closer to retirement.

Of the 344,000 manufacturing workers in Tennessee, about a quarter — roughly 77,000 — will retire in the next decade, according to Randy Boyd, Tennessee Economic & Community Development commissioner. The looming gap was behind his office’s recent weeklong effort to tout manufacturing jobs by introducing students to Tennessee manufacturing operations.

Part of the problem comes down to perception. The national conversation has long highlighted the exodus of manufacturing jobs as companies move operations to other countries. The allure of other sectors has drowned out the opportunities in manufacturing, which often is associated with stagnant wages, undesirable work conditions and uncertain prospects.

“These are now high-paying, high-quality, high-demand jobs,” Boyd said. “Every media outlet, schools, leaders talk about the disappearance of manufacturing jobs in America. That’s not true in Tennessee.”

In Tennessee, manufacturing jobs have increased by 15 percent in the past five years and advanced manufacturing jobs have grown by 33 percent, according to the economic development office.

At Bridgestone Americas, many workers are in their third or fourth decade on the job, which portends problems for the coming years, said Andrew Honeybone, Bridgestone’s vice president of recruiting.

“This is a skill set that we know is in diminishing supply,” Honeybone said. “We need to bolster our talent pipeline.”

The resurgence in manufacturing jobs is underway nationally, too, as rising wages overseas and transportation costs have made local production more attractive, according to Gardner Carrick, a vice president of the Manufacturing Institute. He says close to 900,000 manufacturing jobs have been added in the past five to six years. Average wages have climbed to $26 an hour from below $21 an hour in 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A new direction

If there’s a perception that manufacturing is a declining sector, it’s because for years that was the case, Carrick said. Between 2000 and 2009, 6 million manufacturing jobs were lost. “You are looking at towns around the country that used to have 20, 30, 40 percent of their workforce in manufacturing in1980,” he said. “It really was the backbone of communities all around the country, and in the last 25 years it hasn’t played that role as much anymore.”

Even before the recession, another mindset that contributed to the decline of workers was developing — that the best course forward was a four-year college degree. Students often would begin four-year degrees and not finish, meanwhile missing out on the opportunities available through certificates and two-year degrees. That Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative, which calls for 55 percent of Tennesseans to have a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2025, promotes varying degrees helps address the issue of workforce demand, officials said.

In 2009, Motlow State Community College President Mary Lou Apple tapped engineer Fred Rascoe to develop a mechatronics program modeled after one she discovered in Germany. According to Rascoe, Apple had heard from several companies explaining the challenges they faced in filling technician positions and wanted to build a solution. The mechatronics program began with 12 students and has since grown to more than 300.

“Every one of them is out there working in the industry,” Rascoe said.

Many mechatronic students come straight from high school, while others have been out of school for several years before attending. They can obtain a mechatronics certification or take the courses as part of their two- or four-year degree. Since graduating, former students have become technicians and engineers at more than 50 Tennessee companies, including Nissan and Bridgestone.

Graduates with two-year degrees can earn as much as $25 to $30 an hour, and there is potential for them to move up to six-digit salaries over time, Rascoe said. The jobs are more advanced than in decades past and require additional training, as the work goes well beyond just putting on lug nuts, he said. “It’s a lot more technical than that, a lot more satisfying,” Rascoe said.

Concerned by the imminent retiring of many workers, Tennessee companies have invested in partnerships with area schools, which have helped address the pipeline problems. General Motors has sponsored camps, Bridgestone has helped developed a local high school automotive program, and next year Nissan’s new training facility in Smyrna will offer training to Nissan workers, as well as Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology students.

Haslam’s Drive to 55 puts a large focus on the 27 Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology campuses. The state’s TCATs have increased overall enrollment by 7 percent in the last fiscal year and full-time enrollment by 14 percent, boosted by the Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect programs, according to James King, who oversees the TCAT system as vice chancellor for the Tennessee Board of Regents.

The Reconnect program covers costs for adults to return to school. And for Nathan Slater, it allows him to gain new machinery training at TCAT Pulaski’s CNC Machining Technology program in Spring Hill after his previous employer shut down operations in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. There, he made $9.50 an hour stacking clothes in a warehouse, a job he had for eight years, and now he is interning at Shannon Precision, making $12 an hour, while he finishes his degree.

Before his courses, Slater says, he knew very little about machining, but he jumped at the chance to gain new skills that were in high demand for free. “That was the number one seller for me,” he said.

Chris Turner, General Motors’ business manager for manufacturing engineering, praised the TCAT schools and their role in solving what he describes as an “enormous problem.” With electricians in especially high demand, he advised students to consider that path. “If you did that, you would have no problems finding meaningful employment in a fascinating industry,” Turner said.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org

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