“For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”
John F. Kennedy, our 35th president of the United States, spoke these words. This statement conveys enduring truth today, just as it did during the restless and changing 1960s, when JFK first spoke those lasting words.
Today’s workforce is experiencing extensive, far-reaching change as employers and companies search for qualified applicants to fill jobs requiring technical and computer skills. America continues to lead the world in innovation and technology, but our workforce is falling behind. While some improvements are being made, our education system and workforce are not completely aligned and therefore, the workforce is not keeping pace with technology and employer demands of the 21st century.
Education plays a significant role in helping job seekers meet employer expectations. Scores from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment recently reported that 15-year-old students in the U.S. were performing about average in reading and science, and below average in math compared to other countries.
Out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. Despite American businesses and corporations spending billions of dollars each year training and developing their employees, despite considerable investments by federal, state and local government, employers continue to report too many job seekers are unqualified for current openings.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates more than 3 million jobs continue to go unfilled despite persistent high unemployment rates (currently around 8 percent).
I recently attended a business and industry leaders meeting where Tennessee Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey stated that he personally knew of 1,400 job openings in Nashville, but there were not enough qualified skilled workers to fill the openings. While these jobs sit idle and vacant, we are missing significant opportunities to grow our economy, establish economic recovery from the recession and build for the future. Meanwhile, the global economy for countries like Germany, India, Korea, and China are moving ahead because they are preparing and equipping their citizenry to meet the educational and technical requirements for the 21st century.
While somewhat protected from deep recession, Bradley County and surrounding areas are not completely immune to this sagging, overall weak economy and unacceptable high unemployment rates. In its Sept. 6, 2012 edition, a regional newspaper’s front-page headline read: ‘Help wanted; skills lacking.’ The writer went on to cite a recent Brookings Institute study which found that for the past six years more than 36 percent of available jobs listed in Chattanooga required at least a four-year college degree which is more than three times the share of unemployed Chattanoogans who have such degrees.
Moreover, there is evidence that even with a four-year degree, job applicants may not find employment if specific technical skills are missing. Employers are expecting more from their job applicants than ever before in terms of technical and computer skills. Interestingly, many local employers are not necessarily looking for job applicants with a “degree,” but instead are accepting job applicants who demonstrate relevant experience, technical skills, hard work ethics and a track record of dependability.
I recently toured the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. If you have not taken the amazing tour, I highly recommend it. It was a fascinating scene which could have been taken right out of a “Star Wars” movie. State-of-the-art, sophisticated, computer technology efficiently manages highly complex, multiple moving parts and mechanical systems with precision. Forget your trusted pipe wrench and Phillips screwdriver. Leave them behind in your garage. If you find yourself fortunate enough to have a job interview at Volkswagen, you probably won’t need them here to assemble cars. Forget your greasy oil and transmission fluid cans, funnels and familiar lubricant guns. Programmed robots drop from the ceiling at precisely the right moment to inject the engine’s fluid receptacles, readying the car for that first highly anticipated ignition.
Local employers like Schering-Plough, as well as the expansion of Whirlpool, are adding jobs to Bradley County. Our region has also witnessed recent successes in growing our manufacturing employer base by landing new, multibillion dollar investments. Wacker Chemical, Volkswagen and Alstom will be critical to our regional workforce for years to come.
Meigs County Chamber of Commerce President Ronda Tucker recently told me that recovery is coming to Meigs County.
“It’s just a matter of time,” she said.
At Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent Governor’s Conference held in Nashville, economic development consultants predicted that jobs once lost to “off-shoring” were returning “on-shore” within the U.S. Why? Many “off-shore” job markets are becoming increasingly more unstable and unpredictable due to political, monetary and religious unrest.
The “Made in the U.S.A.” label still conveys value around the world. Bradley and surrounding county residents are well-positioned to acquire meaningful and productive future jobs. But, the question looms large: Is our local Bradley and surrounding county workforce qualified, skilled and prepared to take advantage of these jobs? Or will employers seeking skilled workers be forced to look outside of our area, passing over “Clevelanders” to find more qualified candidates?
Here are some key, basic facts to keep in mind:
- Bradley County ranks fifth in the state of Tennessee for business and industry density (per capita); that’s 10,000 manufacturing employees and 50,000 total workforce.
- More than 63 percent of the jobs (nationally) by 2018 will require at least some post-secondary education [Source: Carnevale, Al; Smith, N.; and Strohl, J.; 2010, Georgetown University.]
- Workers with more education are more productive and content on the job. [Source: Sandra Black and Lisa Lynch, Department of Economics, Harvard University.]
- By 2020, 56 percent of jobs will require a career certificate or college degree.
- Too few students complete college.
- Some 31 percent of Tennessee adults currently have an associate degree or higher.
- Scores from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment show 15-year-old students in the U.S. performing about average in reading and science, and below average in math.
- Out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.
These are some eye-opening, perhaps even alarming, facts and numbers.
So how do we move forward from here in light of where we’ve been, where we are now and where we need to go?
I’ll address some of those questions next week.