Redefining the workforce. Again.


By Scott Robertson

Hanging on my office wall I have a hodgepodge of mementos, mostly from my time with this publication. The first printer’s proof of our very first glossy color issue is framed there, a gift from former publisher Jeff Schumacher. So too is the first printer’s proof of the first issue of The Journal published under our current ownership, the May 2012 issue.

Hanging behind my desk is a blow-up of one of my favorite Journal covers, the May 2007 issue. That cover photo features three business leaders, Brian Ferguson, Scott Niswonger and Newt Raff posing on a leather couch. Raff is seated, Ferguson is half seated on the arm of the couch and Niswonger is standing, centered behind the others. Tom Raymond from Fresh Air Photographics shot the photo at a Regional Alliance for Economic Development event in Johnson City. The event had actually taken place some months before when I was still editing Marquee Magazine (in pace requiescat). Raymond had shot that event for Marquee. As an aside, the event that day was also being covered by the then-business editor of the Johnson City Press, a fellow named Jeff Keeling.

By May 2007, I had moved from Marquee to The Business Journal and was writing a workforce development story centered around the Alliance’s Wadley-Donovan Report. I remembered the excellent photo and called Tom to negotiate the rights to use it on the cover of The Journal. Kelly Barnette, our creative director at the time, photoshopped a dark green background in place of the maroon one used in Marquee, and off to press we went.

The blurb on that cover reads, “Redefining the Workforce.”

If only.

The workforce today is still top of the list of items that need to be addressed in order to grow the region’s economy. Don’t get me wrong, quality employees can be found here. But so too can a plethora of complaints.

In a workforce development meeting recently I heard most of the same gripes about the workforce Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam heard his first year in office during a listening tour of businesses from Memphis to Mountain City.

“Their verbal skills are lacking.”

“They don’t know how to work in a team setting.”

“They can’t make change without a machine helping them.”

“They can’t sign a document because they don’t know cursive.”

“They can’t be relied on to show up on time.”

“They can’t be relied on to show up and pass a drug test.”

“They can’t be relied on to show up.”

Well, says I, it’s easy to complain, but it’s not terribly productive. On the other hand, it takes effort to change a system that’s not working. Then again, businesses are already having to make the effort to train graduates up to standard, so where’s the net loss in trying?

In Tennessee, a business-friendly governor has made strides to address the problems, and, I suspect, is eager to hear more good ideas from business on how to address the legion of issues that remain.

Just so, in Virginia, the governor is quite aware of both a revenue crisis and a jobs crisis looming because of defense budget cuts and the failure of coal as an industry. He too is looking for ideas on how to reorient the state’s workforce.

That’s why I applaud businesses like Roger’s Trucking Inc., in Abingdon for working with Virginia Highlands Community College on a program to help train the drivers it needs. It’s why I applaud Bell Helicopter, Mullican Flooring, Mountain States Health Alliance and others taking part in the Pathways project in Tennessee. They’re doing something.

Schumacher used to say, “when it comes to helping a community, there is no more powerful force than an active, united, vocal business community.”

If government is to actually serve the interests of those it governs, then business must take the lead in showing it the way. Griping about government is easy. Making it do something right takes effort, but it can be worth it.

Ronald Reagan used to say the most terrifying words in the English language were, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”

Now’s the time for the private sector to bring specific ideas to those who govern  – specific ideas on what we need education to do for us, on what students need to know to be ready to work, and on what the state can gain from taking our advice.

“We’re from business,” we should say, “and we’re here to help everyone.”

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