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Location Notebook: Tennessee - Innovations to Meet Workforce Needs

Tennessee is actively addressing the challenge of providing companies expanding and locating in the state with a skilled workforce.

Q1 2016
Ask just about any human resources professional in any state and you’ll hear the same thing: It’s getting more and more difficult to find enough of the right employees with the right skills. America has reached what economists refer to as full employment — the jobless rates are about as low as they’re likely to get, which is generally good news for individuals but challenging for businesses.

It’s not just a matter of economic recovery, either. Labor market experts say the labor force participation rate is on a consistently downward trend, which is “primarily due to the aging population and other structural factors, rather than cyclical weaknesses, and is expected to continue,” according to a Brookings Institution study. The researchers believe withdrawal of participants from the labor market is an ongoing phenomenon, in large part due to the retirement of baby-boomers. “The youngest members of the baby-boom generation are still in their early 50s, so the effects of population aging will continue to put downward pressure on the participation rate for some time.”

The challenge of locating the most talented job applicants affects most industries. Manufacturing is a major example, according to a skills gap analysis conducted by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute: “Over the next decade, nearly three and a half million manufacturing jobs likely need to be filled, and the skills gap is expected to result in two million of those jobs going unfilled.”

Partnering With Academia
So, what are businesses to do? How can policymakers respond? In Tennessee, state leaders have identified the labor quandary as an opportunity to differentiate themselves. Matching qualified workers with the right job opportunities is a challenge virtually everywhere, and Tennessee leaders have determined that prosperity will be the reward for those who devise the best solutions to the challenge.

That’s the motivation behind Workforce360°, which partners state agencies and educational institutions in an effort to deliver a highly skilled workforce. It’s a collaborative approach involving the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Department of Education and Higher Education Commission, Department of Human Services, the state’s four-year universities, its colleges of applied technology, and its community colleges.

The youngest members of the baby-boom generation are still in their early 50s, so the effects of population aging will continue to put downward pressure on the participation rate for some time. The idea, according to Workforce360° documentation, is for businesses to allow Workforce360° partners “to become an extension of their workforce development and recruitment efforts.” It’s a project-based system that identifies and tries to resolve workforce gaps through various state resources. There are tactical teams that address immediate workforce needs and also delve into longer-term strategic planning on workforce issues.

Companies plugged into the program can place job orders with one or more of the 75 Tennessee Career Centers across the state, detailing job requirements. The centers will immediately get to work trying to match the jobs with qualified candidates, and give the opportunities broad exposure through the website. It’s a full-fledged recruitment process that includes pre-screening, assessment and testing, interviewing and pre-hire training.

Through Workforce360°, Tennessee aims to be the most aligned state in the country when it comes to connecting industry with workforce education. As Workforce360° documentation observes, “The best solutions are most often achieved through a collaborative approach.”

Advanced Manufacturing Partnerships
The state’s education and economic leaders are no strangers to such collaborative efforts. Consider the example of the Volkswagen Academy. The initiative connects Chattanooga State Community College’s Engineering Technology Division with Volkswagen Group of America’s Chattanooga operations. The result is a pair of three-year mechatronic programs designed for those seeking jobs in the automotive industry. The programs make use of German curriculum and follow Volkswagen global standards, and they’re accredited by the German Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

A similar advanced manufacturing program pairs Bridgestone with Motlow State Community College — the partnership has developed a mechatronics program based on the Siemens Mechatronics Systems approach. No other U.S. program offers this kind of three-step pathway for advanced manufacturing education. And another innovative training collaboration involves Electrolux and the Workforce Investment Network. Classes are offered at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis, and are based upon Electrolux’s specifications and training requirements.

Perhaps the most significant effort is the state’s Drive to 55 Alliance, with an ambitious goal of ensuring that at least 55 percent of Tennessee’s adult population has a degree or certificate by the year 2025. Already, overall enrollment in public higher education is up by 10 percent. Among the tools for helping that type of growth happen is the Tennessee Promise, a last-dollar scholarship endowment intended to ensure that everyone graduating from high school in Tennessee, starting with the Class of 2015, can attend community or technical college tuition-free for two years. Some 16,000 students are enrolled in the Tennessee Promise. Another tool is known as Tennessee Reconnect, a program designed to help more adults complete a postsecondary degree or credential.

The U.S. Census has charted an increase in the percentage of Tennessee adults with high school diplomas or the equivalent, as well as the percentage that have bachelor’s degrees or higher — the state’s growth in both of these areas ranks second nationally. In addition, “Tennessee is the fastest-improving state in the nation for K-12 education from 2011–2015, based on the National Assessment of Education Progress,” reports the most recent annual LEAP Report from the Tennessee Labor Education Alignment Program. “Tennessee is actively addressing the challenge to ensure a skilled workforce is available for the newly relocated and expanding companies across the state.”

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