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McMinn County launches job skills program

This article was originally published on timesfreepress.com.

McMinn County is turning to its neighboring county in Bradley to help resolve two critical labor concerns in East Tennessee: a dwindling workforce and a need for qualified workers at local manufacturing facilities.

The McMinn County Economic Development Authority recently agreed to adopt a job skills promotional and training program launched in Cleveland in 2017 that is designed to encourage students to pursue manufacturing and technology jobs at local industries.

Known as "Your Skills. Your Future." the program offers a range of web and classroom resources to high school students, parents, adults and job seekers in partnership with Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT), Cleveland State Community College (CSCC), The University of Tennessee Center for Industrial Service (CIS) and the Tennessee Career Center.

"Over 34 percent of McMinn County's workforce is employed in the manufacturing industry, and the demand for more skilled workers in the region continues to rise," said Kathy Price, executive director of the McMinn County Economic Development Authority. "At the same time, there are high school graduates who may not be suited for a four-year college experience and are unaware of the available opportunities around them. Our goal is to raise awareness and create a pipeline of skilled workers by showing the community that a well-paying career with a successful future is easily attainable."

The program was created and first implemented in Bradley County by the Cleveland-Bradley Chamber of Commerce to help local businesses and industries meet ever-increasing demands with high school students and adults who wish to pursue technical training beyond high school without incurring significant student debt from longer and more expensive 4-year college degrees.

Gary Farlow, president of the Cleveland-Bradley County Chamber of Commerce, said the program is an outgrowth of the Chamber's education committee efforts to tackle the growing challenge of getting enough technical workers to staff local companies as unemployment hovers near a 50-year low and many of the Baby boomers who have long filled many manufacturing jobs are now retiring.

With the addition or expansion over the past five years of Wacker Chemical, Amazon, United Hydrogen Cryogenic of Tennessee, the Mueller Company, Newly Wed Foods, Lubing Systems of Barker Plastics LLC, Bayer, Vairog U.S. LLC and Whirlpool, the Cleveland area led all metro areas for job growth in 2017, exacerbating the challenge of finding enough qualified workers.

"When we launched this program, we realized that schools were already doing more to boost computerized training and vocational programs so we realized probably the best thing we could do was a public relations campaign with web-based resources to get the word out, especially to parents so they would realize there is a good way to get the resources and training for a good technical career that pays well for their children," Farlow said. "This is not anything against four-year colleges, but this gives more people attractive options."

The Cleveland Chamber worked with Waterhouse Public Relations in Chattanooga to develop web-based materials and information to highlight the jobs and training available in the area and program organizers are working on tool kits for teachers for lesson plans to help more students understand different career options.

"We've developed rack cards, web sites and different publications available to those searching online, or at career fairs or in schools," said Marissa Bell, an account executive for Waterhouse PR. "There are a lot of outreach materials to help students find different careers, to help parents find different financial aid options and technical schools to attend, and to help teachers what companies are in the area they might tour or learn about to employ their students in the future."

Farlow said the program continues to evolve and grow and he hopes other counties may also join in the campaign. Although it is still early, Farlow said enrollment is up in both local community colleges and in computer training programs in local high schools, in part, because of the heightened awareness of the job needs for technical skills.

"Our goal is to build a workforce for whatever businesses and industries need," Farlow said. "We are very pleased that McMinn County is taking advantage of it. Within the next year, we will expand the program to include resources for those interested in information technology and health care careers. Moving forward, we will do whatever we can to provide any additional support."

The program builds on Tennessee's "Drive to 55" campaign to get at least 55 percent of all adults in the state with at least a post-secondary certification for some type of skilled jobs by 2025.

"The foundation of our economic development efforts is to make sure we can train the workforce with the skills needed in today's market," Gov. Bill Haslam recently told the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

Tennessee was the first state in the country to offer free tuition for two years at community colleges as part of the Tennessee Promise program to help meet the state's education goal. When the initiative began five years ago, about 32 percent of Tennesseans had a degree or trade certification, but that share has since risen above 40 percent "and if the current trajectory continues we will be above 55 percent before 2025," Haslam said.