VOL. 8 | NO. 2 | Saturday, January 03, 2015
Building the Base
By Amos Maki
It was late September, and local officials were deeply engaged with retail giant Target as the company explored investing in an online fulfillment center in Memphis when the discussions turned toward a familiar subject.
Target, which hopes to open the $52 million, 462-job distribution center in early 2015, wanted assurances it would be able to tap a qualified workforce, one that would be ready to go in just a few months.
“When they contacted us they said, ‘Demonstrate to us you can fill 200 positions in January,’” said Dexter Muller, senior vice president of community development at the Greater Memphis Chamber.
Target's request came at an opportune time. For several months, local business, education and government officials had been busy assembling the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce, a system they hope will provide students and workers with multiple career paths and launch a powerful workforce development engine primed to deliver trained employees local companies are desperate to have.
It was an unprecedented initiative that spanned state lines, included multiple educational entities and had the support of state and local governments and some of the biggest names in local business.
The effort helped convince Target that the community was focused on workforce development, and the Minneapolis-based company will make Memphis the home of an e-commerce-based distribution center that will service the southeastern United States.
"We’ve got the programs we need and the resources we need, and that demonstrated to them that we could do it," said Muller. “It just shows you what a community can do when you get together on this kind of stuff.
"I've never seen the stars align like this. It was like everything just came together."
The Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce seeks to unite what had been an at times fractured workforce development system into the solid tip of local economic development efforts.
It’s a crucial component for the area’s job-creation hopes. In fact, the alliance was the lead initiative for the new Memphis-Shelby County Regional Economic Development Plan, a plan co-chaired by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and FedEx executive vice president, general counsel and secretary Christine P. Richards.
Concerned with the bottom line and being able to operate on time, companies have increasingly focused on the availability of a competent workforce, a trend that has become the norm.
“You’re going to have to prove going forward that you can get them the workforce they need because they don’t want to be in that business,” said Mark Herbison, senior vice president of economic development at the chamber.
The Alliance will generate extensive workforce data, create a pipeline of ready-to-work employees, craft career roadmaps for workers and students and, as in the case with Target, help meet a company's near-term employment needs.
But that meant pulling together disparate programs at multiple institutions – including some that competed for the same pool of students – and essentially turning a former mantra of the old Memphis City Schools system on its head.
Instead of "Every child. Every day. College bound," the former city schools system's philosophy under Carol Johnson, the new local slogan would need to read "Every child. Every day. College and career ready."
"What you had was everybody was doing their own thing," said Muller. "There was some cooperation but it wasn’t as extensive as it needed to be. The alliance pulls everything together."
For that to happen, the alliance required a leader who could combine the efforts of five different colleges or technical schools – Tennessee College of Applied Technology, Southwest Tennessee Community College, Mid-South Community College, Moore Tech and the University of Memphis – and craft a workforce education system that met the needs of employers, employees and students.
Organizers found their man just across the Mississippi River in West Memphis.
Dr. Glen Fenter helped build Mid-South Community College in West Memphis from scratch after the Arkansas Legislature approved a measure in 1991 allowing technical institutes to be converted to community colleges. The effort also required a local tax increase, which was approved.
“We were living in a region where it was going to be difficult to convince people to raise taxes on themselves, but fortunately the community had a vision and clear understanding of the value of education,” said Fenter. “We’ve had a lot of divine intervention, but I think when you’re trying to do the right thing for the right reasons then things have a way of happening.”
Since MSCC began in 1993 with fewer than 200 students, close to $100 million has been invested in the campus, $65 million in outside investment has flowed into its workforce training model and it now boasts roughly 2,000 students.
“We’ve grown a lot, but more importantly we’ve created new paradigms for helping students access technically-oriented skills and jobs,” said Fenter. “I do believe a young person, unemployed person or underemployed person in Crittenden County has a better chance of moving himself or herself forward than ever before.
Mechatronics, Aviation Technology, Machine Technology and Diesel Technology are only a few of the programs at Mid-South Community College in West Memphis.
“The primary test we should apply to our education model is a simple one,” he continued. “Does the model lead to a good-paying job?”
Fenter’s curriculum centers around the needs of local employers and giving students who may not be college-bound a pathway to meaningful careers.
That means introducing students in middle or high school to careers in a wide variety of trades in demand locally, including transportation and distribution, logistics and manufacturing. In addition, students should be able to work toward certification in a field in high school and have that work count toward their post-secondary education, either at a four-year college, two-year college or technical school. The goal is to catch the attention of students who haven’t made college their top priority and show them they can still create a bright future in the Memphis area.
“There are students that will struggle to complete high school, in many cases because they don’t see high school as relevant to the future,” said Fenter. “But when you show them a job or profession tied to high school, then they are going to be a lot more motivated. It’s about making those connections.”
Problems and possibilities
Meanwhile, Southwest Tennessee Community College is raising private funding to build an industrial training center on its Macon Cove campus.
It’s the second such privately-funded capital project for the community college, which recently opened a new nursing school building on its Downtown campus.
Southwest Tennessee president Nate Essex says like the nursing school facility, the new training center is motivated by demand.
“That program assists underemployed and unemployed individuals to be prepared to work in industrial settings with salaries of about $15 to $18 an hour,” Essex said in November. “We’re at a point where we can expand because of facility limitations.”
The school had raised $1.5 million at year’s end toward the $3.5 million goal and was working with 12 groups of employees in its current training center on the Macon Cove campus.
The program works with employees of plants who are sent to the campus for additional training by their employer, and it works with those seeking certification and associate degrees to get jobs.
Southwest Tennessee has evolved in a short period of time since being ground zero for the local response to what quickly became a crisis after local leaders brought a string of big economic development prizes to town in late 2010 and early 2011.
Electrolux and Blues City Brewing couldn’t find the local workforce they each needed, leaving them with the options of calling off the moves to Memphis or importing the labor they needed.
Electrolux in particular was already being criticized by some elected leaders for a definition of local construction contractors that took in the area around Memphis as well as the city.
The criticism followed intense questioning by the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission of the tax abatement incentives proposed for Electrolux, which both bodies ultimately approved.
Robert Sims listens 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.
(Memphis News File/Lance Murphey)
City Brewing, the Latrobe, Wis.-based brewer that bought the Hardy Bottling Plant in Hickory Hill, was the first of the new industrial arrivals to cast its net into the Memphis labor pool for permanent non-construction employees.
For 500 jobs, only 20 of those who applied made the cut to advance in the hiring process, and 10 of those 20 flunked the drug test.
Carolyn Hardy, who owned the bottling plant and sold it to City Brewing, remained as an adviser to City Brewing. She moved quickly to coordinate with the local Workforce Investment Network and Southwest Tennessee Community College on a rapid training program that began to take shape during the Christmas holiday in 2011.
She and others involved in the training have said the broad efforts to hire Memphians through job fairs weren’t being specific enough to find the existing trained talent that might be working elsewhere for lower wages. Those who could find entry level work needed training in the basics of workforce culture, such as showing up on time. Others could take basic skills working on fairly sophisticated assembly lines and, with some training, advance to better-paying jobs.
The first Blues City class of 30 started Jan. 3 and graduated Feb. 1, 2012. All passed the drug test. City Brewing wasn’t the only company convinced. So were Electrolux and another of the economic development newcomers, Kruger.
Since then, the thrust of the efforts has been to get ahead of responding to a new plant or facility coming to town. The goal is to have workers already trained. The thrust also recognizes that some employers will want to train their employees in new skills at the workplace as well.
“If we improve their skills set, we can become one of the most competitive regions in the country,” Wharton said of the ongoing effort. “If you look at that demographic, 18 to 35 (years old), we have one of the largest groups in that age group. We haven’t trained them though. They don’t have that skill set.”
Senior reporter Bill Dries contributed to this story.