LEAPing the Skills Gap

by Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris

Closing the skills gap has become almost cliché, but a few short years ago that was not the case. The United States was caught flat-footed by the reshoring of advanced manufacturing in America.

The “train and pray” education and employment policies and practices of the past—go to college, get a degree, graduate and hope to find a job—were no longer adequate to meet the demand for a skilled workforce.

In today’s advanced manufacturing world, anticipating the needs of business and industry is the name of the game. It requires looking beyond, not at, the horizon. Skating ahead of the puck, not to it, is the new normal.

While some economists have expressed doubt about the skills gap, The Wall Street Journal reports that a survey by Manpower Group showed 40 percent of U.S. respondents “were having trouble filling jobs” and a separate poll by Accenture PLC and The Manufacturing Institute found “75 percent of manufacturers surveyed were having trouble finding skilled production workers.

”I experienced this firsthand. In the summer of 2012, during a Tennessee Business Roundtable hosted by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam in Memphis, a recently relocated plant manager tasked with expanding his employer’s manufacturing facility spoke up.

“Forgive me, governor,” he said. “If I’d known before we selected Tennessee for expansion what I found when I arrived here, I would never have chosen Tennessee.” The problem? The unavailability of skilled workers.

More than 400 skilled workers were needed to operate the expanded Unilever facility in Covington, Tenn., where Breyers, Ben and Jerry’s, and Klondike ice cream bars are manufactured today.

It almost didn’t happen. Thousands of resumes were received. None were qualified. Robots make ice cream bars, and mechatronics wasn’t second nature in west Tennessee at that time.

A customized curriculum was created at a nearby community college, and “Unilever University” was born. The result was a trained workforce ready to work when the plant became operational.

Unilever invested more than $100 million in the expansion, hired more than 400 employees, and now operates what is reported to be the largest ice cream factory in the world in west Tennessee. In October 2015, United States Cold Storage opened a state-of-the-art facility next door employing another 100 Tennesseans trained in technology and logistics.

It took an unprecedented alignment of Tennessee’s departments of Labor and Workforce Development, Higher Education, and Economic and Community Development, in collaboration with private companies and corporate citizens, to pull it all off.

I codified the approach in LEAP—the Labor Education Alignment Program—in 2013. In 2014, we funded $10 million in LEAP grants awarded to 12 consortiums across the state. Today, hundreds of high school students are dual-enrolled and simultaneously employed in private-sector apprenticeships.

LEAP was the genesis of the State Pathways to Prosperity workforce development and education initiative I chaired as CSG’s 2014 chairman. (Our report can be found here.) It reflects similar initiatives across the United States designed to put people to work.

CSG continues working to harness and translate the type of information that drives state governments’ ability to focus effectively on the future. This is essential if successful economic development efforts are to be sustained.

States compete for jobs and governments compete for scarce resources needed to drive economic opportunity. The states that understand this and are able to maximize the right opportunities will prosper. States that don’t will falter.

It is in everyone’s best interest to maintain a long-term commitment to building the best workforce in the world. Building a stronger economy—one that consists of a skilled workforce, declining unemployment and increasing gross domestic product—requires a sustained effort.

That’s what we’ve done in Tennessee. It is one of the reasons Tennessee has been named economic development State of the Year for two consecutive years by Business Facilities magazine. Advanced manufacturing job creation in Tennessee far outpaces the national rate, at 30.3 percent of new jobs, compared to 8.1 percent nationally.

States across the nation are rising to the workforce challenge, and CSG is playing an important role. CSG’s workforce development and education initiative is designed to assist and benefit state governments through content rich programming and development of cost-saving services to states and to individual policymakers alike.

Get involved. Ask the tough questions. See to it that your state’s curricula are relevant and that institutions of higher learning are properly incentivized, equipped and funded to graduate citizens with the aptitude, attitude and skills necessary to work, earn and learn in the 21st century.

It is hard to see history in the making when you’re in the midst of making it sometimes. But history is being made in education and workforce development, and history will show that we rose to the challenge.

To read more about the Tennessee LEAP program, click here >>