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Chamber ‘Skills’ project changing perceptions

 GARY FARLOW, president and CEO of the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce, discussed the Chamber's "Your Skills. Your Future" campaign at a recent "Food for Thought" luncheon. BANNER PHOTO, BRIAN GRAVESThis article was originally published on clevelandbanner.com.

What can an area's chamber of commerce do to help build an industrial workforce?

Change the perception of what it is like to work today’s industries.

That is what the “Your Skills. Your Future” campaign was designed to do, and it was the subject of the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce’s “Food for Thought” gathering for a recent luncheon.

Chamber President/CEO Gary Farlow said workforce is one of the biggest issues right now as the county has record low unemployment.

“We don’t hire people. We’re not an employment agency,” Farlow said. “There is a limit to what you can do.”

He said discussions centered on what exactly the issues are when it comes to the local industrial workforce.

“Students have a negative perception of what manufacturing is. Parents think their kids should all go to four-year colleges. Many educators went from high school to college to the classroom, so they don’t have a lot of exposure to that unless they had a summer job in manufacturing,” Farlow said.

He noted Bradley County has around 1,800 people in the unemployed category.

“There is turnover in that 1,800, but it’s a very low number,” Farlow said. “If you are an employer, you know how hard it is to get skilled people for the jobs that you have.”

He said the CBCC is preparing to launch a funding campaign to try to do a lot of workforce development projects.

“One of those we are discussing is a talent recruitment strategy,” Farlow said. “We may have to go outside of here to find people.”

He said another question is how to get the approximately 12,000 people who commute to Chattanooga every day to stay local.

As to getting the skills for the jobs, Farlow said with the “Tennessee Reconnect” program, a person can come out of a community college with a two-year degree and a skill set.

“You can go right into a job making pretty good money without a boatload of student debt,” he said.

The idea for the “Your Skills. Your Future” was for it to be a public relations campaign.

“We needed to get the word out, start changing perceptions and get people to at least start looking at that as an option when they are looking at college careers,” Farlow said.

He said the basic audience for the campaign are middle school and high school students.

“We are also targeting educators because of that perception of ‘high school, college, job,” as the only progression in many people's minds, Farlow said. “We have been doing a number of things on that front for years. We have Teachers Academy, where we have teachers go to work during the summer for a paid experience with a manufacturer.”

Farlow said veterans are another target for the program.

“Most veterans are already coming out with a fair amount of training anyway,” he said. “Hopefully, they could go back and get some additional training and a certificate then go right into the workforce.”

Farlow said many would be surprised to learn inmates are a target group for the campaign.

“We have a lot of people incarcerated in the country and many of them are nonviolent offenders. They messed up, and we are working with the local misdemeanor program and the workhouse,” he said.

Farlow said the website for the program has a great deal of information, including a career quiz that can can help with ideas for a vocation.

“It then steers you to a whole set of different careers and how much they pay,” he said.

The website also features testimonial videos from students and parents telling their experiences.

For more information, the website is www.yourskillsyourfuture.com.