Creating a Sense of Community in Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia
 

Cover Story: How “The Great Disconnect” Connects the Region

Chris Bogart is frightened.

As principal of Unicoi County High School, he yearns for his roughly 700 plus students in this rural area to succeed. He’s devoted his entire adult life to preparing this area’s youth for the future. He wants to see them grow, earn a higher education degree or technical training certificate and land a well paying job. He wants them to flourish. To prosper. To, in his own words, live the American dream.

But in such a rural community, opportunities can be scarce. In fact, a recent report by education advocacy group Complete Tennessee characterized such opportunities as a little more dire. There’s a “startling gap”, according to the report, in college attainment rates between students in more populated areas versus rural areas. And while the average college going rate in East Tennessee is 59 percent, that number dips dramatically in outlying and rural areas.

“It scares me,” Bogart said during a recent summit examining northeast Tennessee’s educational pipeline to the region’s ever expanding job market. As students who live near educational hubs like Johnson City and Kingsport “move forward, our (rural) kids stay behind. There is a gap, a tremendous gap.”

Still, despite this post secondary educational gap in more rural areas, unemployment rates throughout Northeast Tennessee remain low — about 4.1 percent through July, according to the most recent figures from the United States Department of Labor. Yet, despite a rosy picture on paper, those numbers aren’t exactly what they appear, says Northeast State’s Vice President of Economic and Workforce Development Jeff McCord.

Today, hundreds, perhaps thousands of highly skilled jobs in medical, construction, advance manufacturing and technical sectors throughout northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia remain vacant, said McCord. Not because there isn’t a workforce, but because the workforce that’s available is not adequately trained or educated for such highly skilled jobs. Plus, considering roughly 40,000 people in the area don’t even have high school diplomas, there’s often a struggle to meet the high-level skills local industry requires. 

And in areas such as northeast Tennessee and neighboring Virginia, a solid economy rests with the success of existing companies maintaining a competitive edge, as well as expanding current efforts. It’s easy to see how this boosts local employment numbers and offers competitive wages that increase tax bases and improve quality of life standards. Yet, while maintaining and improving the abilities of existing industry is no doubt a financial building block, to truly boost the area’s economic footprint, one must rely on the entire region’s collaborate ability to attract new businesses, specifically those traditionally robust industries such as medical, construction, computer and technical sectors, McCord said.

And fail not, every new business prospect that tours the area asks the same questions, said Matt Garland, CEO of the Greene County Partnership. How skilled is your workforce and when are they available to start?

“Companies are coming in and ready to go, so our workforce has to be ready to go. They want us to ramp as soon as they can,” Garland said. “Everybody can offer 30 acres and some buildings. But it does nothing if you don’t have the (skilled) labor force. You have to have the labor. If you don’t have the talent, you don’t land the prospect. It’s that simple.”

Further compounding the issue, not just in this region but also nationwide, is a mass exodus of a highly skilled, seasoned, and experienced workforce better known from 60s counterculture as baby boomers. Born after World War II, this generation spurred America’s rapid economic growth for more than five decades. As the largest pool of Americans to ever enter the workforce, they’ve experienced more technological advances than any other generation in history. It’s estimated that during the next 15-25 years, 76 million baby boomers will retire, up to 15,000 a day, said Kingsport City Manager Jeff Fleming in a video outlining the issue. After retirement parties are celebrated and workers walk out their company’s doors clutching a box full of office belongings, they aren’t just leaving a vacant office chair spinning in their wake. They’re also taking with them a voraciously vast and varied knowledge base that’s ignited the economy for decades. Its as if this generation are the pistons pumping the nation’s economic engine. Of these 76 million estimated baby boomers existing the workforce, its believed there are about 46 million Gen Xrs ready to take their place in the economy. But just because Gen X is next in the workforce line, doesn’t mean these 35-39 yr olds have the skills and knowledge base to step in for a smooth transition. This fact has many economic developers scrambling to prepare, at least for the last decade in this region alone. To make matters worse, 30 million college bound 18 to twenty-somethings are not even pursuing advance manufacturing careers, a crucial cog in the nation’s economy, and perhaps even more vital in this region. In essence, by the end of the next decade or so, the United States will need no less than 10 million highly skilled, highly experienced, and highly trained employees to step into the empty office chair left by the baby boomers. It’s a workforce shortage unlike anything the nation – or this region — has experienced before. Ever.

In other words, America is facing a workforce crisis.

And as America goes, so does Northeast Tennessee. In fact, regional industries have already witnessed such impacts, and have for years. The pipeline linking education and certified training to those highly skilled jobs currently available is not just leaking, it’s often gushing, some local business leaders and economic experts admit. Eastman, for instance, is expecting to lose 300-400 employees due to retirement during the next several years due to retirement. And many companies are having difficulty in filling specialized positions that are much easier to fill in larger metropolitan areas, like Indianapolis, Louisville, even Nashville.

Roger Calloway, plant manager for Piney Flatts-based Microporous, a world leader in battery seperators for heavy machinery such as forklifts and industrial power cleaners, said he’s stressed out about finding qualified candidates. For the past 14 months he’s advertised for an engineering position. And everyday it’s the same results: no worthy candidates. For a job title that in general offers fresh-out-of-college graduates a salary up to $65,000, Calloway is a little perplexed. Back in the Indianapolis/Louisville region where Calloway previously worked, a job posting such as his would have had applicants “lined up for days”, he said. And after plans to pump $20 million into current and future plant renovations and high tech machinery upgrades, he’s only been able to hire 5 of 12 other positions he recently created to help transition his company into the world leader for car battery separators, a segment of his business that currently only ranks 3rd in the world for output. Only third, he says modestly. In the world.

“It’s a credibility challenge,” he said, referring to inability to hire some specialized employees. “When you have all this going on and you can’t fill an important position, people wonder why.”

Cue the region’s odd contradiction here. The interesting dichotomy taking place today is that there are a number of jobs available, just not enough skilled workforce to fill them.

Welcome, folks, to the one of the largest issues facing the economic vitality of the region. Welcome to the “Great Disconnect.”

THE BUZZ AND BUZZWORDS

OF REGIONALISM

For roughly a decade or so, local politicians, business leaders, career civil service, educators and a myriad of other stakeholders have recognized this impending lurch in the workforce. The missing link between the education and skills our current workforce can offer and what employers need is such a hot topic that last month about 200 local leaders, mayors, and even congressional staff gathered for a summit in Jonesborough. Dubbed Education 2 Employment, the forum focused on the ways and means to seal this leaky education-to-business pipeline. The issue is so prevalent, it’s even got a name: “The Great Disconnect”, a buzzword that area business trailblazers and visionaries seem to banter around as if it’s the number one priority for the region. After hearing from panelist, it’s hard to argue any other way.

With such a crucial issue facing the region, VIP SEEN has gathered the area’s leading college and university presidents for the September cover issue, no small feat in itself, (and one that’s very appreciated). It almost comes off as an act of solidarity that showcases not only how strongly area educators feel about bridging this skills gap with, uh, education of course, but this landmark cover, a first in VIP SEEN’s history, represent a meeting of the minds, an idea that the region is stronger if it works together rather than competing for resources, clients and business. The idea is dubbed, simply enough, as “regionalism” and it’s a concept that’s been brewing like a good Yee Haw beer for years. Logistically though it’s anything but simple. It is another buzzword loaded with unknowns, yet represents a camaraderie of commons, a unifying goal that industry, government, non profit, education, and other sectors work as one to benefit the whole. It seems to flow off the lips of economic developers, mayors, and educators alike with a sense of pride.

Garland, from the Greene County Partnership, is no different. Garland said he works closer with the 3 other major economic developers in the area almost on a daily basis. He put the concept another way: “Why is regionalism important? Because we can’t do this alone. We’re better together than as one. And if you live in one county and work in another, we’re all getting a piece of that dollar. We all benefit. It’s always been ‘Northeast Tennessee’ to me.”

Now, after more than a dozen interviews with mayors and other elected officials, local and state economic development leaders, private consultants, educators, students and more, a picture emerges that not only explains this educational disconnect, but also showcases avenues and means to “reconnect the disconnect.”

A PROMISE TO TENNESSEE

The notion of a “great disconnect” between the region’s education levels and employer needs is an idea that’s resonated up from local municipalities and wafted all the way to Nashville. In 2014 Gov. Bill Haslam challenged Tennessee with a “critical new mission”: The Drive to 55, an effort to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college degree or educational certificate by 2025. In seven years, it’s estimated that half the jobs in Tennessee will require some sort of post-secondary education. It’s not just a revolutionary idea, but its also pioneering. No other state in the nation has implemented such a program, which includes its underlying programs, Tennessee Reconnect and Tennessee Promise

While Tennessee Promise has been very successful for several years supporting high school seniors, Tennessee Reconnect starts this fall and is geared to adults, helping both age groups attend a community or technical college and complete a postsecondary degree or credential for free.

Yes, you read right. Free.

While much talk is placed on younger students learning skills to fill highly technical skills, adult education is just as important. “While our state is making great strides in increasing the number of high school students who enroll in college, we cannot meet the full job market demands without engaging and supporting more adult learners,” according to the Website driveto55.org. “It’s not just a mission for higher education, but a mission for Tennessee’s future workforce and economic development.”

In this region alone, roughly 57 percent of quality jobs require industry or two-year certifications, and nearly 98 percent or more require a high school education.

This news is old hat to Northeast State Community College President James King. As an educator for more than 30 years, King sees any sort of education as a boon to the region. “This is what education is all about,” King said, referring to many of the industry certifications and highly specialized training his college offers. “For years, it was thought if you didn’t have a four-year degree you wouldn’t be a success. Not anymore. The value of the technical degree has exploded over the last 10 years. Don’t look down your nose at any certification or associate’s degree. That graduate may be walking away making two times as much money (as someone with a bachelors degree) and have 3 more job offers on the table than the next guy. You want to graduate with as many tools in the toolbox as you can, and this area industry is proving that.”

Although it’s hard to tell how many adults will overtime take advantage of the free tuition program, by August more than 30,459 students have applied, according to Tennessee Board of Regents.

Outside of the traditional college-type setting, education is morphing in other ways too.

Besides statewide financial windfalls, a myriad of local programs are cropping up throughout districts statewide. In the Chattanooga area, for example, highly skilled technical companies are offering credits for students to actually come into plants and work, exposing them to possibilities they never even knew existed. In Greene County, career expos aren’t just held after school or manned by a recruiting booth in the cafeteria. Teachers often carve out specific class time to bring in panelists and expose students to job possibilities.

“We need to start having this talk now, starting even as young as kindergarten,” said Dr. Lyle Ailshie, former Greenville City Schools Director and Kingsport City Schools superintendent turned deputy commissioner overseeing the College, Career and Technical Education division at the Tennessee Department of Education. “The gaps in earnings, if we don’t do something, are going to continue to slide.”

In years past educators and businesses didn’t speak. High school teachers have traditionally been more concerned with state standardized test scores, while post secondary educators have developed educational tracks based on expertise they can offer. Again the “Great Disconnect” had reared it head. But now, after years of open dialogue between educators and business leaders, the education community can – and has – started catering programs towards local industry needs.

“If we’re not aligned together, we’re going to be preparing students for opportunities that don’t exist,” Ailshie said. “And that’s not going to work.”

This is where places like the Kingsport-based Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing step in. RCAM specializes in apprentice-based programs, K-12 partnerships, Web-based technical training and college credit initiatives specifically geared toward the needs of individual employers. In other words, employers tell RCAM their needs and they set up training.

PEACHES AND CREAM (And everything in between)

After a decade of examining the “great disconnect”, local business and educational leaders are finally speaking out. In fact, they seem to be shouting it out to anyone that will listen. The mantra is always the same: Act, and act now. It seems only recently local, regional and state initiatives are taking root. Summits like the E2E conference is proof there’s “buy-in” from the local powers that be.  And that makes people like Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable smile. With more than 200 people attending the conference, Venable was shocked.

“When I walked in and saw this crowd, it kind of blew me away,” Venable said after delivering closing remarks. “I think we’ve finally admitted to each other that we need to come together. We’ve got to prosper together. No jealously. No competition. We’ve got to be hitting on all cylinders. I hate to use the cliché, if you build it they will come, but if we don’t build and educate our workforce, business won’t come.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever had such a concerted effort to reach the same goals,” he continued. “We’ve got to have a good outcome. There’s no other way.”

From an outside perspective, however, Northeast Tennessee and Virginia are eons ahead of the rest of the state and country in bridging the “great disconnect”, said Deane Foote, president and CEO of Phoenix-based Foot consulting Group LLC which specializes in workforce and economic development. As someone who’s traveled the country, consulting local leaders, he’s never quite seen an area that’s embraced “regionalism” and efforts to close the education gap as robust as here.

“Across the nation, these issues are all the same,” Foote said during a private interview. “But here, you’ve really got an advantage. You’ve got people already sitting around the table. It’s highly attractive.”

McCord, the vice president of at Northeast Community College, put it another way. “A lot of communities are just starting the conversation, but we’ve been plowing the field so to speak for over a decade. We’re just not starting to plant the seeds, but already we’re starting to bear fruit.”

“It’s not all peaches and cream,” he added, “but we’re making progress.”

AWARENESS AWAKENS

Despite these gains, many in the workforce simply are not aware such programs and financial aids are even available. And if workers aren’t aware they have a winning lottery ticket, they’ll never cash in. It starts with nonprofits, churches, even parents to hone in on the opportunities available, experts said.  “There’s just simply not enough done communicating these career paths,” McCord said.

Abigail Eldridge, 23, agrees. The Johnson City native had a plan. She knew she wanted an accounting degree and she wanted to make a big splash. Work for the top firms. Make a name for herself. But as a high school student, she was never exposed to programs like ones today that help students learn how to interview, build a resume and network, what it takes to make it in a big way.  There was no emphasis on soft skills, such as being courteous, professional, even skills such as promptness, showing up on time, or courtesy calls if going to be late, the kind of skills that many area experts say is sorely lacking, and ongoing theme and struggle for employers.

Despite the silent groans of her father, former Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge, Abigail left Johnson City to chase the big dreams in a big city just hours away in Nashville. She’s the type of highly skilled up and coming workforce the region wants to attract, but a part of the ongoing crop of employees leaving the area after graduation. For her, she wanted a more progressive employer, ones that like in Nashville offer massage chairs and Ping-Pong tables in the office.

“This was my chance to spread my wings and fly,” she said of her decision to leave Johnson City, despite loving the area. “We’re starry-eyed dreamers, we want the biggest and the best. But we also want a progressive employer, one who understands us.”

And although she had job offers in Johnson City, in Nashville Abigail Aldridge could make $10,000 more a year for the same job. And it’s these esoterically Gen-X and Millennial needs that perhaps local industry needs to adhere to when attracting a better workforce. True, northeast Tennessee has the rolling hills, and enjoyments of an outdoor wonderland, but if employers want to attract highly skilled workers from beyond their backyard, they might want to start thinking like the millennial generation thinks now, she said.

Her former Johnson City employer was routinely “expressing a lot of frustrations that the new graduates being hired now didn’t have the skills they needed,” she said. “But maybe they need to start catering to targeted workforce.”

A BRIGHT LIGHT FUTURE

For now though, many economic developers, elected officials, and others see the potential in targeting students in K-12, exposing them to local job avenues they might not otherwise have known existed.

“We’re never going to be able to break the cycle of poverty. We’re never going to be able to ensure the future economic vitality of the community if we don’t’ start (targeting and training) our future workforce when their young,” said Kingsport Mayor John Clark. “This is a major, multi-faceted issue that we’re trying to address from the top down. This is crisis management for me.”

Bob Feathers, foundation board chairman for Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, and board member for Johnson City Chamber of Commerce, put it more bluntly. Kids “being able to spell their name in kindergarten seems like a big win these days. We have to do more, anything to inspire children to open their eyes and see they can do these jobs so that we literally plant hope, can change their trajectory (and fill the region’s future workforce needs) so that we’re not sitting here in another 10-15 years talking about the same thing.”

Bogart, the Unicoi County Schools principal, agrees. He hopes the fear he harbors for the future of his students is misplaced. He urges state education leaders to lesson emphasis on state standardized test scores and places a larger emphasis on gearing curriculum in high school to the workforce demands of the region.

“Make us accountable for all these issues,” he said. “Help us learn to grade students on the needs of our local industry. Help us create opportunities outside the traditional school building infrastructure. I applaud this regionalism idea and the efforts to train students, but keep in mind, these outlying communities can’t do it on our own. Our kids have to compete in the region too.”

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