Workforce Solutions Summit: Less rhetoric, more results

9 Jun 2015

Athens was the first stop on a path toward trading rhetoric for results on Monday.

The Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Athens (TCAT) was the site for the first of three Workforce Solutions Summits hosted by U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann. Two more summits are planned later this year - one in Chattanooga and one in the northern part of Tennessee's Third Congressional District, which Fleischmann represents.

The idea for the summit is to bring education and government leaders together with leaders of industry. The primary goal is to cultivate an expanded, skilled workforce to meet the current and future demands of manufacturers across the region.

"This is the first of its kind," said Fleischmann. "We want this to be a model for the nation; what we're doing here is really groundbreaking and very important."

The summit began with a panel of representatives from local industries: Jim Brigham with Resolute Forest Products, Dan Scherle with E&E Manufacturing, and Hugh Cantrell with DENSO Manufacturing Athens Tennessee. The industry panelists laid the groundwork for the remainder of the summit by citing the specific needs of the companies they represent.

"Right here in Athens and McMinn County, we have manufacturers that are growing and expanding, but we need skilled workers," said Fleischmann.

Following the panel discussion, attendees chose to participate in one of five strategy sessions each dedicated to a specific area of workforce development.

"We don't just want to get together and talk; we want to make sure we have results," said Fleischmann. "I fervently believe that if we're going to bring America back to greatness, we've got to rebuild our manufacturing base in this country. There is no better state to do it than Tennessee."
Strategy session leaders and their topics were:

* McMinn County Economic Development Authority Executive Director Kathy Price led a session on marketing.
* Rick Layne, director of Career & Workforce Development with Tennessee Career Center, facilitated a session on public/government involvement.
* Julie Graham, executive director of East Tennessee Quality Growth, headed up a session focused on future workforce.
* Melissa Browder, business development consultant with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, guided a session on education/training solutions.
* TCAT Director Stewart Smith led a session on employer collaboration.
The end result was a series of group presentations outlining the ideas developed during each strategy session.
Next, a Leadership Roundtable convened consisting of Fleischmann, Smith, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd, Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Burns Phillips, Tennessee Board of Regents Vice Chancellor James King, and Cleveland State Community College President Dr. Bill Seymour.

The roundtable addressed some of the concepts developed during the strategy sessions and how they might be able to facilitate these ideas.

A common thread throughout the summit was the pace at which industry operates and how solutions are needed in short order.

"Folks in education and government need to fully realize how scarce the time is for the folks in manufacturing," said Smith.

Fleischmann concluded, in part, that government assistance should be tailored to individual company needs rather than broadly throughout a particular industry.

"One of the key things to come out of today is flexibility," he said. "Whether it's federal or state programs, we've heard today there have been impediments. When the private sector deals with the public sector - if it's not one-size-fits-all - it hits a wall. We need to work toward fixing that. We need to be more flexible and that's a theme I'm going to take with me."

Smith concluded the program on an optimistic note.

"We've talked a lot today about weaknesses and problems in the workforce, but we have to remember we don't have all these manufacturing entities growing and expanding in this area for no reason," he said. "While we need to continue to work on the issues we have, we don't ever need to ignore or forget about the vast majority of those employees out there who make this community and this country strong. We've got a lot of good, hardworking people in this community."