By Dave Ongie
Congressman Phil Roe spent most of his day recently listening to the concerns of his constituents during three separate roundtable discussions held at the Carnegie Hotel in Johnson City.
Roe heard from manufacturers, women in business and construction professionals during the three sessions, and workforce development was a common thread that ran through all three meetings.
After opening his manufacturing roundtable by ticking off all the positive indicators in the manufacturing industry, Roe listened as John Stewart of Nuclear Fuel Services and Joshua King of Kintronic Labs briefed the congressman on some of the headwinds they are facing locally.
Responding to Roe’s question about what keeps him up at night, Stewart said, “Ensuring that we operate our plant in a safe, compliant manner without catastrophic upset keeps me up at night. The only way we can prevent that is to have highly trained, skilled workers working around the clock.”
For Stewart, whose company is tasked with supplying the United States Navy with nuclear fuel, that has been easier said than done as of late. NFS has struggled to hire enough quality employees just to keep pace with the retirement of older, more experienced workers.
“Last year, I hired 40 people, and my headcount remained the same,” Stewart said. “So we’re going through a large demographic change where we’re having significant retirements. This year I’ve hired 55 people, and I’m just slightly gaining on attrition there.”
As a significant portion of the local workforce nears retirement age, the question becomes how to fill the shoes of the experienced workers who are choosing to hang up their work boots. Population growth in our region has been stagnant, talented young people are opting to move to metropolitan areas and many of those in the market for jobs don’t have the skills necessary to do the work required of them.
“There’s the double whammy of the aging workforce, a lot of skill that is exiting, and the concern that the workers who are out there that could potentially fill those spots don’t really have the soft skills because they haven’t been exposed, perhaps, to a culture of work – showing up, being on time, having regular required attendance,” said Steve Darden, who sat in on the manufacturing roundtable.
Recently, local elected officials and business leaders have expressed concerns that rural areas – our region included – are being left behind as the more metropolitan areas around the state are enjoying an economic boom. Roe echoed those concerns as he talked about the challenge local businesses are facing as they try to retain and attract young talent to our region.
“So we’re creating almost city-states that are putting huge problems on rural areas like this that are competing for skilled workers,” Roe said. “When you lose a worker that knows how to do this and has been doing it for 20 or 25 years, that is a big lick for your business.”
In terms of replacing experienced employees, identifying and retaining young workers continues to be a high priority for businesses that desperately need highly skilled employees, and recently local governments have begun taking steps to help those efforts. Much of Johnson City’s recent rebranding effort was geared toward marketing the city as a great place to live, and money has been funneled toward amenities aimed at making the city a more attractive place to put down roots.
At the state level, meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee has put a high priority on training a new generation of skilled workers, making strong technical and vocational education a cornerstone of his education policy. During a speech he made at a Lincoln Day Dinner in Carter County last Thursday evening, Lee said investing in vocational and technical education is a way to help even the playing field for rural areas competing against Knoxville, Chattanooga and the Murfreesboro/Nashville corridor.
Stewart said there is a desperate need to show high school students the world of possibilities available to those who learn a trade.
“My sense is that we missed a generation,” Stewart said. “We sent them to get bachelor’s degrees that are not useful in the marketplace, and we’re now just realizing it and trying to take corrective actions and rejuvenate the trade tracks.”
Citing the renewed sense of optimism among those in the manufacturing industry, Roe is hopeful a new generation of workers will be able to identify the opportunity ahead and help spur economic and population growth in our region.
“In my lifetime, I can’t remember a better time to graduate from high school or a technical school,” Roe said.