The pursuit of economic development comes with code names, secrecy and mysterious visitors.
Without a doubt, the last two years have been eventful when it comes to the city’s civic leaders luring companies to town with the promise of jobs for Memphians. In that regard, the local debate about tax incentives and the competition with other cities, some nearby, was vigorous.
But what followed out of that spotlight was a scramble for workers that is likely to accelerate in the New Year and beyond.
It was a critical moment that could have reversed the job gains and made the tax breaks debate a moot point. Instead, the experience has led to a specific model for job training. And it has created a training career ladder for manufacturing workers to advance. And the process has gained some ground on the problem of the underemployed.
Students fill out a listening skills exercise in an Industrial Readiness Training class at the Whitehaven Center of Southwest Tennessee Community College. (Photos: Lance Murphey)
Teacher Troy Taylor demonstrates machines that are used to test mechanical aptitude during an Industrial Readiness Training class at the Whitehaven Center of Southwest Tennessee Community College. The classes are designed to prepare applicants for positions at jobs in the area. (Photos: Lance Murphey)
Now that the city and county have lured some big factories to the area along with smaller economic development plums, the issue is where to find the qualified workforce for those jobs. That’s where classes like Industrial Readiness Training at Southwest Tennessee Community College come into play. (Photos: Lance Murphey)
The March 2011 announcement that City Brewing Co. would reopen the brewery part of Hardy Bottling Co. in Hickory Hill was the last in a trio of impressive economic development announcements.
City Brewing bought the plant from Carolyn Hardy in a $30 million deal in which Hardy continues to work closely with the company as it reactivates the brewery portion of the plant.
They began in December 2010 with the announcement that Electrolux would be building a plant in the Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park. The Electrolux announcement was followed by a February 2011 announcement of the Mitsubishi plant to be built nearby in southwest Memphis.
But because City Brewing wasn’t building a new plant, its conversion of what is now Blues City Brewery was the first of the three to hire workers for the facility itself.
But then executives there began sorting the job applications. And they had a problem.
For the 500 jobs, only 20 who applied made the cut or were considered to be qualified for the jobs. And then 10 of the 20 flunked the drug test.
The test protocol wasn’t geared to identify the “keepers,” said Hardy, who remains as a consultant to City Brewery, the parent company that owns Blues City Brewery.
Without Hardy’s action, the La Crosse, Wis.-based company might very well have gone looking elsewhere to import the labor it needed for the Memphis plant.
“Right, wrong or indifferent Blues City is not from Memphis,” Hardy told a group of local elected officials in September as they toured the Electrolux and Mitsubishi sites with leaders of the Greater Memphis Chamber. The bus tour was also a tutorial on the city’s job training efforts.
Hardy and others at Blues City began working with the local Workforce Investment Network and Southwest Tennessee Community College over the Christmas holidays in 2011 to come up with a training program that specifically met the needs of the brewery and of manufacturing in general.
They moved quickly and with a sense of urgency. Southwest already had a model in data training classes it has offered for free.
The first Blues City class began Jan. 3 and graduated Feb. 1, the day that the workers started at the brewery. The 30 applicants in the class all passed the drug test and City Brewing CEO George Park was converted to the Memphis labor pool and the training methods.
The Memphis office of WIN covers Shelby and Fayette counties. Housed at Memphis City Hall, the office is one of five approved by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and funded by the federal government with $7.8 million for the current fiscal year.
Through September, 251 people have taken the Industrial Readiness Training course and 141 have been hired for jobs in Memphis. And 93 percent of those hired live in Shelby County. Those hiring from the classes include the Blues City Brewery as well as workers at the Kruger plant in North Memphis being expanded at the site of the old Kimberly Clark plant.
The courses cost $1,200 per person and WIN has funded the course costs for 140 of the applicants.
Manufacturing is back in the Memphis economy. But it is nothing like it was before the late-1970s/early-1980s recession shuttered the city’s biggest and best known factories.
Today’s manufacturing employs fewer people for jobs that are more technical with tasks that cross old divisions of assembly line labor that no longer exist.
And a job on an assembly line isn’t a job until retirement. Some of the workers trained by WIN for Blues City Brewery have been laid off. And the program is working to keep them near the top of the list of prospects for new jobs because they not only have the training but now have experience to go with it. That is a plus in a sector where plants shift the products they make and also the assembly line methods they use.
By August of this year, Blues City had expanded its line of beverages to include Shipyard Brewing Co. and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Shipyard, which is a microbrewery based in Portland, Maine, leased space at the brewery to make its Pumpkinhead brand.
This month, the first of three classes of 25 each specifically for job applicants at the Electrolux plant in southeast Memphis began at Southwest Tennessee Community College.
Electrolux hopes to hire 50 people by the end of January as entry-level assemblers and operators in a plant that will make several kinds of ovens and ranges.
“During the class, the employer has representatives who actually attend the class and observes the students and see how they work,” said Desi Franklin, executive director of WIN.
“Not only what their hard skills are and their technical skills, but also how do they work as a team? Are they prompt? Are they there every day? How are they dressed? They actually hire out of those classes.”
Hardy called those “soft skills” – the first area where the match of workers to employers begins before moving into specific skills.
Hardy said the early problem at Blues City wasn’t job applicants who couldn’t get hired anywhere. It was job applicants who weren’t a fit for manufacturing jobs.
“We don’t tell people that when they weren’t successful that they failed. They need to look at other things. … We’re trying to help them find a better fit,” she said. “We’re hoping that they actually find that fit a lot sooner and not go through various companies and have an impact on our image here in the city of Memphis.”
Hardy said she also believes the job training effort is taking on a more persistent, longer term and less talked about problem in the Memphis economy – the underemployed.
Those not showing up for the job fairs who might be a better fit for the jobs are those who already have jobs at minimum wage and probably a second job.
“In their mind they’re saying why should I come and take a risk because even though I’m underemployed, I’m still getting a paycheck,” Hardy said. “If they are making minimum wage and they hear that somebody’s starting at $13 (an hour) and you can get up to $18, all of a sudden now it’s worth coming out of that underemployed job.”
Half of those in the Blues City class were the underemployed.
“We were not getting to them,” Hardy said.
Because manufacturing templates and processes are constant, the approach to job training is perhaps different than the methods used by companies in other sectors.
The ServiceMaster Co., based in Memphis, does its own job training – four weeks – for entry-level sales positions.
The company held the latest job fair for its Terminix division earlier this month. The job applicants that show up know what is involved and are very specific in what they are looking for.
Terminix is hiring seasonal sales associates to start in 2013.
“They have typically been in sales and that is what sparks their interest,” said Richard Hill, vice president of contact centers for Terminix and TruGreen, another division of ServiceMaster. “At the end of the day, this isn’t the right job for everyone. We don’t want to bring someone in where it’s a mismatch. We have good assessment tests.”
Hill is over contact centers not just in Memphis but in Atlanta, Dallas and Tampa, Fla. He ranks the Memphis applicants’ quality with those in the other cities.
“We’ve been very successful in recruiting local talent for entry-level positions up to mid-level management,” he said of the Memphis applicants.
ServiceMaster also has a talent acquisition group that recruits on local college campuses for part-time workers with an eye toward retaining those who stand out.
The company’s goal is to lower its rate of turnover and look for full-time employees among the seasonal workers.
“We’ve been able to bring our turnover rate down to approximately 32 percent in our Memphis contact center,” Hill said. “You get in early. You get the experience and you have the opportunity to move forward into advanced sales campaigns as the season progresses. Our objective is to bring someone on permanently.”