Out of the near-crisis in hiring workers after the city’s set of economic development plums in the last three years came a workforce training formula that has worked.
But many of the city’s companies aren’t aware of that formula or the existing programs that grew out of what amounted to an emergency response by local leaders. That’s according to a recent survey of manufacturing company leaders by the Greater Memphis Chamber.
There have been other indications of a disconnect that can be bridged between the programs and employers.
At a Memphis roundtable on jobs hosted by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam a year ago this month, the plant manager at the Unilever plant in Covington said he couldn’t find the kind of training programs he needed. John Churchill, who helped create the job training programs at Southwest Tennessee Community College that were the breakthrough for finding workers for the Electrolux and Blues City Brewing projects, responded.
“It ended up resulting in Southwest Tennessee Community College customizing a training program that yielded Unilever the employees it needed,” said state Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville. “It turned out great.”
So on Sept. 4, Norris wants those running the programs and those needing them to get together in the same room at The University of Memphis in a process he describes as a “mini-jobs conference.” That’s a reference to the Tennessee Jobs Conference of the late 1970s that set a long-term economic development agenda for the city.
Norris’ goal is a bit different, however. It is more of an attempt to coordinate what is already working but that more employers need to know about.
“It starts with the premise that without the state doing anything and without the City Council doing anything else, there is already a lot of good that is already being done in this community in this arena,” he said. “Rather than the state rolling out a big new program or anybody else doing that, let’s all sit down together shoulder to shoulder and get a smattering of some examples of that.”
State Labor Commissioner Burns Phillips will be there with other state officials and local elected leaders. But Norris also wants to hear from leaders of the Boys and Girls Clubs technology training program, an effort with a 100 percent job placement rate for each of the last three years.
Meanwhile, University of Memphis interim president Brad Martin wants to develop human capital plans with the area’s top 30 employers, aimed at what their new jobs will be in the next 10 years.
“I’m focusing on a very narrow band,” Martin said. “My guess is we don’t know what those jobs are. Over the next 10 years they are probably going to be different than what they were for the last 10 years. We are going to be meeting with the top 30 employers in the market and creating strategies about how The University of Memphis teaches people exactly what they need in order to fill those jobs in the future at their specific businesses.”
Norris is realistic about other obstacles beyond just getting employers in the same room with those running workforce training programs.
In June, Haslam signed into law the Labor Education Alignment Program, sponsored by Norris. The program allows those in workforce programs like the ones already underway in Memphis to be paid a competitive wage while training without it affecting student financial assistance they otherwise get.
Norris describes it as a return to apprenticeship-type programs.
“We’re trying to restore that. That’s easier said than done. A lot of these departments do not like to cooperate. They just don’t. We’re finding out where the impediments are and where the barriers are internally,” he said. “We may evolve into realizing that we need some legislation to grant some waivers from some of these artificial barriers that are in place.”