Sen. Norris: Workforce more ready

On September 9, 2015, in News 2015, by Mark Norris

When companies look at moving to West Tennessee there’s a list of things they want to see, one being a group of skilled workers.

According to officials, West Tennessee has generally lagged behind in having a ready workforce and it has cost the region jobs.

On Wednesday, Sen. Majority Leader Mark Norris, Republican from Collierville, spoke to the Jackson Rotary Club and said things are beginning to turn around in this area.

Norris referenced a study financed with a grant from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development which said West Tennessee was behind economically, but could exceed Middle and East Tennessee if its workforce development improved.

Norris said because of programs like Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise, which gives two free years of community college or technical school to graduating seniors, and organizations like the Jackson Regional Partnership, it is easier to get a degree that can be used at companies.

“If you tell [companies] that you get it intuitively and you understand the importance of a ready and skilled workforce, that’s an incentive of a different kind,” Norris said.

“We’re getting bragging rights from prospects who come and take a look and they say, ‘You get it, you’re working on it, that means a lot to us, that’s appealing and that’s going to make a difference,’” he continued.

Kyle Spurgeon, the Jackson Chamber president and chief executive officer, said workforce development is still easily the number one place Jackson can improve.

“Our higher education facilities, our public schools and everybody is starting to be in alignment,” he said. “Two years ago we weren’t, but now with the opportunities that Gov. Haslam has put in place (like Tennessee Promise) I would give us a seven on a scale of 1-10.”

Jason Bates is on the front lines of the educating process. Bates, manager of Toyota Bodine Aluminum, said two years ago he was anticipating 150-200 openings in the next 10 years, but said he didn’t know where the workers would come from.

Now as a member of the Jackson Regional Partnership, Bates employs approximately 20 students who are getting a certificate and working at the Bodine plant at the same time.

Regardless of where the students end up after they graduate Bates said they will begin making at least $50,000 a year. The program is changing lives, he said.

“These are first generation college kids,” Bates said. “They’re graduating with zero debt because it’s being paid for (by Tennessee Promise). They’re getting great work experience and it’s changing these kids’ lives.”

In the past, Bates said companies would just hire qualified workers from each other. Now Bates said there are 20 more students this year and the growing pipeline will help fill holes at Bodine and other places when they come available.

“What we ended up doing was going to another company and stealing from them and we all just stole from one another,” Bates said. “So we had to increase the pool. This program is increasing the pool.”

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