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VOL. 131 | NO. 28 | Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Workforce Effort Leaders Talk About Skills Gap

By Bill Dries

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Before Olympus Corp. announced last month its plan to locate a service and distribution center in Bartlett, a bigger medical device manufacturing company was on the hook for the town.

ROY SMITH

KEVIN WOODS

GLEN FENTER

And it was the big fish that got away, says Roy Smith, executive director of the Greater Memphis Medical Device Council, which was working with the Bartlett Chamber of Commerce on the unnamed prospect.

“They chose not to come to Memphis because they were concerned about the availability of the workforce,” Smith said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”

Kevin Woods, executive director of the local Workforce Investment Network, was also involved in the discussions.

“What they assumed is if they took the talent from every company that existed, there still would not be enough for them to run their organization,” he said. “Not only do we have to have people that are coming through a pipeline, we’ve got to increase the number of organizations on the ground here.”

The medical device industry in the Memphis area accounts for 17,000 jobs.

Glen Fenter, president of the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce, which includes WIN and the Memphis Medical Device Council as well as the Greater Memphis Chamber, says the Memphis area is getting new looks from advanced manufacturing. It is part of the “reshoring” phenomenon after those businesses moved manufacturing out of the U.S. for cheaper labor in foreign countries.

Fenter described reshoring as “where companies are recognizing that all they thought was green in the pastures overseas has turned out not to be quite as fertile a playground as they considered.”

“I do believe that the most critical factor to economic development is the capacity of a community to create and sustain a workforce,” Fenter said. “We are putting models in place that are going to demonstrate we are moving in that direction.”

Behind The Headlines, hosted by The Daily News publisher Eric Barnes, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Much of the attention locally around economic development is about what tax breaks or other incentives should be offered to companies on the move. But Fenter said during a 14-state economic development conference he attended this month in Florida, there wasn’t any talk about incentives. It was all about workforce development.

“We did not get in this positon in this country overnight. We, over a couple of decades, started systematically changing how we educated folks and unfortunately a lot of the technical education models got left out,” Fenter said. “Never before has this skill set deficit been so prevalent.”

The local WIN office, headed by Woods, covers Shelby and Fayette counties and is one of 13 regions in the state. With federal and state pass-through funding the local WIN office both refers citizens for workforce training and does the training directly to the tune of 14,000 participating in those programs last year – 7,000 trained by WIN programs and the rest referred to partnering organizations.

The workforce development effort began as a response to the near crisis in the last five years as Memphis landed several economic development plums. Two newcomers to the local economy – Electrolux and City Brewing Co. – began trying to hire local workers and weren’t getting the numbers they needed.

It wasn’t unique to Memphis. Unilever had the same experience and second thoughts about their move to Covington.

What resulted was a workforce training effort that moved away from job fairs.

“When you do a job fair, the idea that some of these high-tech skill sets would be walking around in the general public and show up at a job fair is not always that realistic,” Fenter said. “If we do our job appropriately, the need for a job fair will certainly be reduced.”

But Woods said they won’t be eliminated altogether. WIN helped organize the job fairs that hired several hundred Memphians to work at Bass Pro Shops.

“Eventually this city is going to get to the place where because we are training so many individuals that companies will host those events because we want to give individuals the opportunity to choose which organization that they want to go to work for,” he said.

Woods said he and others involved in creating and maintaining the skilled workforce pipeline have also talked to employers about the need to pay a good wage.

The competing wages help to build “career pathways.”

“We don’t talk about that enough,” he said. “We have individuals that may leave a job for a 50-cent raise because it matters in their home.”

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