The eight organizations attending were TVA, Propex, Volkswagen, Alstom, Wacker, Chattanooga State, Whirlpool and Cormetech.
According to reports, there is an overwhelming demand for students from CTE and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs, officials stressed. They pointed to the number of companies experiencing a shortage of trained employees.
Tim McGhee, dean of the engineering technology office at Chattanooga State, said stronger, well-defined CTE pathways are essential from secondary to postsecondary education.
Laura Paddock, head of talent acquisition at Propex, said there is a missing connectivity between the companies and students’ parents, an oversight that affects recruitment of potential employees.
“When students consult with parents about their future, and the parents do not understand technical training as a viable career opportunity, then they will not advise them to take a STEM path,” Paddock said. “The students will listen to the most influential voice in their lives.”
Denise Rice, representing Cormetech, said the disconnect is due to a misunderstanding of tech work. According to Rice, almost everything is automated, without the “grime and smoke” from the Industrial Age. Cormetech is currently developing its own maintenance associates by sending workers to Tennessee Technology Center in Athens. Rice said workers could potentially make $70,000 a year with only a high school diploma.
Randy Whittenbarger, vocation/technical and career educational coordinator at CHS, said he does not believe students realize the opportunities available from technical training. According to reports from representatives and teachers, students can often be found sleeping during presentations on technical work opportunities. Whittenbarger said he is shocked by the opportunities that are presented to students but ignored.
According to Devon McNeely of Alstom, the company relocated almost all its workers when it initially began. She said there was a very high attrition rate. Alstom is attempting to raise up local workers through the entry-level technician program.
“Workers in the program will be paid with benefits. When they graduate they will be a machinist. We are having to grow our own people,” McNeely said.
Whirlpool representative Carolyn Webb said technical-trained employee retirement is greeted with panic. To find a replacement and provide training would take a while, Webb said. As the supply of technical workers decreases, the demand increases. Stewart Smith, director of Tennessee Technology Center at Athens, said the demand ensures job placement for serious and determined technical graduates.
Iiker Subasi of Volkswagen said lack of interview skills can cost an applicant the job.
“When they come in they are dressed in jeans with their shirt hanging out. When they are asked what they like about VW they say, “I like the Rabbit, the van. ... They are not prepared for the interview,” Subasi said.
Paddock, Subasi and other representatives said it takes a number of interviews to find the right worker.
Dr. Erika Burke pointed out Chattanooga State has a program in which students learn to interview properly. Autumn O’Bryan, CHS principal, said the school could look into better preparing students for interviews. O’Bryan also said representatives could try connecting to students through technology, including social media. As principal of CHS, she has a Twitter account utilized to keep students up to date. She currently has around 500 followers, most of them students.
Whittenbarger said he thought the panel discussion went exceptionally well.
“What impressed me most is that we are receiving these answers from the top [organizations] down to us,” Whittenbarger said. “It is a matter of myself, Tim and these industries coming together to make a path of opportunity for these students.”
Dr. Martin Ringstaff, director of the Cleveland City Schools system, said he highly appreciated the representatives joining the panel discussion.
“If you need a partnership, then you are in the right school system,” Ringstaff said.