Skilled workers needed

11 Jun 2015

Leaders of local industry provided the framework for a solutions-driven summit held Monday in Athens.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann hosted the first of three regional Workforce Solutions Summits at Tennessee College of Applied Technology. The summit was geared toward expanding the skilled workforce across the region.

The summit began with a industry panel comprised of Dan Scherle, general manager of E&E Manufacturing in Athens; Hugh Cantrell, director of Human Resources at DENSO Manufacturing Athens Tennessee; and Jim Brigham, director of Human Resources at Resolute Forest Products in Calhoun.
The panelists gave context to the summit by stating their specific needs and the general needs of industry as a whole. Those needs, in turn, led to a series of strategy sessions involving education and government representatives to formulate solutions.

"This is the first time I've had an experience where local government, local education and local industry actually cooperated and we all like each other and we all get along," said Scherle. "We all have something very important to us at stake and that's been workforce development."

In contrast to his fellow panelists, Scherle noted E&E Manufacturing employs fewer than 1,000 employees. However, developing skilled labor is no less important to the company's operation.
"If we can't grow and sustain our business model, our customers can't either," he said. "The skill set to supply this growth and the gaps in talent have never been bigger."

In order to compete in a global marketplace, Scherle said trade education and marketing the benefits of a career in manufacturing are vital.

"It's still OK to work with your hands; in fact, it's a noble thing," he said.

To this end, E&E has opened its doors to local school systems to introduce the next generation of workers to the company's high-technology environment, including advanced robotics.

"They're always blown away," said Scherle.

Why this skills gap exists and how it should be addressed is the question posed by Scherle to local educators.

"What aren't we exposing our children to?" he asked. "What aren't we doing to let them know this is a very cool industry to be in, on top of the fact you can make a lot of money doing it?"
Scherle expressed optimism that this skills gap has been clearly identified by state and federal government and has opened dialogue to address the concerns of industry. A by-product of this awareness is Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's recent $2 million allocation for the development of the proposed Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Business Innovation (CAMBI).

CAMBI will combine industrial training facilities to expand the skilled workforce in this region with a business incubator to harvest entrepreneurial talent and ideas. Plans are to locate the facility in the Athens-McMinn Interstate Industrial Park on land donated by the McMinn County Economic Development Authority.

"Pooling our resources is a tremendous way to save money," said Scherle. "For each industry to pay for its own training agenda is what causes uncompetitiveness. We have to compete on a global level; there's no two ways around it."

Cantrell agreed with Scherle's assessment of a widening skills gap in the manufacturing industry.
"We've been very successful at hiring lots of production workers, but the skilled craft still presents a challenge to us here locally," said Cantrell. "It's something we have to work together to try to overcome."
Cantrell also echoed Scherle's sentiments regarding the value CAMBI could provide for local industry.
Both DENSO and Resolute Forest Products are currently undergoing major expansion projects at their respective McMinn County facilities.

"It's interesting that we're having this discussion now because we're going to have go out and hire a bunch more people," said Brigham.

Resolute is also faced with the challenge of hiring skilled labor in different fields of high technology. The skills gap is forcing industries across the region to compete for the same limited pool of workers.
"With everything going on, it's tough to find that skill set," said Brigham. "We really like the workforce that is here, but we do need the assistance of all of you to build a more experienced (workforce)."