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VOL. 6 | NO. 32 | Saturday, August 3, 2013

Industrial Readiness

Expanding training programs battle unemployment

By Bill Dries

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Laura Hine remembers her first week at the Workforce Investment Network office in Memphis.

The Electrolux plant, 3231 Paul R. Lowry Road, makes ovens and stoves for the North American market.

(Daily News/Lance Murphey)

She specifically recalls a table filled with job applications for Blues City Brewing and how few of those applying were ready for one of the first signs of new life in Memphis’ manufacturing sector.

“It was really sad,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are not job ready but want to work.”

The problems Blues City had initially finding local workers was a near crisis averted when Carolyn Hardy, a consultant to the brewer and bottler who sold the plant to them, began the scramble to quickly produce a pool of Memphis workers who underwent several weeks of training. The owners of City Brewing, the parent company of Blues City, were more than satisfied. They became believers in the Memphis method of finding employees with potential who could get the training over a short amount of time and then be ready to go to work.

So did Electrolux executives who experienced a similar false start on finding local workers. The effort showed the way forward in preparing for future manufacturing jobs in a city that in June posted a 10 percent unemployment rate.

Nevertheless, a 2012 analysis of manufacturing jobs by the Greater Memphis Chamber shows those manufacturers plan to hire more than 4,000 employees through 2016 at an average annual pay of $32,180. Few of the manufacturers reported working with education institutions to recruit workers and many said there were few effective strategies for placing workers in open jobs.

“The immediate process is to identify where the gaps are and start working on meeting those needs so we can have an available labor pool that’s ready to go to work,” said Delories Williams, managing director of workforce development at the Greater Memphis Chamber.

The chamber and WIN, a federally funded agency covering Shelby and Fayette counties, are working together to build the structure that looks to make that training a permanent part of the city’s colleges and universities, especially two-year colleges that can offer certification or associate degrees.

The problem employers encountered was employees not ready for the most basic workplace experience in any sector.

“People will disappear from work and show up two weeks later and they are ready to work again but they don’t understand why their job is not there,” Hine said. “A lot of time it’s because they have basic issues that are plaguing them but they don’t tell the employer about it.”

In a recent survey of manufacturing sector employers, many also complained that after they invest in specific training, employees might jump ship, lured by a small increase in hourly pay.

Teacher Troy Taylor demonstrates a machine that is 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. 

(Daily News/Lance Murphey)

“It may be that you get $1.50 more an hour moving to the plant next door,” Williams said. “But at the company you were at, they were paying all your insurance benefits. You go next door and your insurance jumps up to $200 a month. Those are some other things that they haven’t considered.”

For Hine, those kinds of scenarios feed into employees who don’t see a way for advancement, which is another goal of the training. An employer in many cases will pay for additional training for an employee to advance. Companies can be reimbursed by the state for that kind of advancement training.

The three-week Industrial Readiness Training that starts the process is about as basic as it gets.

“You can’t miss. You can’t be late. You’ve got to be on time,” Williams said, summing up its starting points for would-be employees. “If they can get them to do those basic things then you can teach somebody how to work the machinery. You can teach somebody how to use a scan gun. … But first of all you’ve got to have the basics and that’s common to all manufacturing.”

And often the employers are in the classroom helping out but also watching for immediate prospects.

“The IRT is great but it’s just the beginning,” Hine said. “It prepares people for the most basic entry level jobs. I think one of the reasons it’s been successful is they drill down and focus intensively on three areas that comprise the career readiness certificate.”

Those areas are applied mathematics, reading for information and sourcing information.

The jobs at the end of the process aren’t “pack and stack,” as critics often call them. Getting jobs and advancing isn’t about knowing how to operate a single machine any more.

“It’s higher thinking skills beyond I’ve got to push this button and this little thing is going to happen,” Hine said.

But the appeal of the training and what those in the program are told they will be able to do is also a key difference that is often demonstrated when those in the training see someone they may be working for.

“As long as education and training seems esoteric to people, you just don’t find the same level of commitment and enthusiasm for it,” Hine said. “I think it’s just human nature.”

PROPERTY SALES 28 290 16,197
MORTGAGES 33 165 10,087
BUILDING PERMITS 184 608 38,544
BANKRUPTCIES 33 125 7,597