While the local school system and higher education institutions are working to grow a future workforce, employers are looking at how to develop the current labor force to meet industry and job demand.

Alex Sadler, with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s economic development staff, noted most jobs in Tennessee are middle-skill jobs – jobs requiring more education than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree.

“Fifty-eight percent of the labor market are middle-skill jobs, and only 45 percent of our workforce is trained for that level,” she told individuals attending an Education and Workforce Summit hosted by the Crossville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce Oct. 31.

“When you think about that, understanding the needs of the industry and how that marries with the curriculum at the educational institutions is the key to economic success,” she continued. “And the community that figures that out is the one that will succeed.”

Sadler noted employers were looking at the existing workforce and opportunities to train those workers for future jobs while also trying to plan for succession of the workers eyeing retirement in the next few years.

Strengths and challenges

Charles Sexton, director of human resources at Cumberland Medical Center, said the hospital is staffed with long-time employees. Almost half of the people at CMC have worked there more than 20 years.

“That’s amazing,” he said. “There’s something to be said for consistency and for people who will be there with you no matter what.

“I think we have some honest, hardworking people.”

But Sexton noted many of the younger employees come from different circumstances than those long-time workers, having dealt with the challenges of broken homes or absent parents.

“That dedicated commitment from people still in our industries, still vital employees for us, encouraging the new people,” he said.

Cecilia Paulsen, human resources manager at Manchester Tank, said the company has some employees with almost 40 years of service in physically demanding roles.

“The strength and the commitment, the physical demands of this job … These guys do it every single day. And they do so without complaint,” Paulsen said.

She said younger applicants aren’t as prepared for the physical demands of the work.

Lack of resources has been a challenge to some employees such as not having access to transportation, Paulsen said.

She’s also encountered applicants who may have been in trouble in their past.

“You have all these things you have to balance,” she said. “You have to ask if this is someone you can put to work and they have put their past behind them and they’re ready to make a fresh start?

“Or do you have a great candidate in front of you but you can’t use them because they can’t pass a drug test?”

Paulsen said she does not like to turn people away, but the human resources department has to think of the company and the other employees.

“That’s a struggle,” she said.

Sadler said those are common concerns across the state, region and nation.

Soft skills

Soft skills mean more than just being on time for work or maintaining a good attendance record. It’s skills like problem solving, critical thinking or proficiency in math and reading.

“These are general basics that you and I probably take for granted until we have to go hire somebody,” Sadler said.

These are skills human resources managers are looking for during an interview. Paulsen wants workers who can provide attention to detail even in the midst of a distracting environment.

“It’s in that split second when we’re distracted that something goes wrong,” she said. “We can’t afford to have that go wrong.”

She also wants employees to be able to notice when something has gone wrong and develop action plans to solve the problem. Often, workers may have these skills but not know how to apply them in the workplace right away. She tries to provide resources to develop those skills, such as training and mentorship.

“By not offering them the resources, we’re doing them a disservice as well as ourselves,” she said.

People skills are a top priority for Sexton.

“I can get highly educated people coming into our organization. I don’t worry about their skills. The challenge is when they start interacting with people,” he said.

Sexton said it is important to find applicants who know “how to be nice,” as well.

“About 80 percent of the challenges I deal with are two people who, at some point in time, were just not very nice to each other,” he said. “And if we don’t deal with that correctly, it’s just going to fester and it’s going to get worse.”

Ongoing training

Sexton said there is often a disconnect between management and human resources. The individuals on the floor want to have someone hired as quickly as possible.

“We want to hire people right, which means we have to hire slow,” he said.

He prefers a team approach to interviewing and applicant screening, particularly in key positions.

He said some job searches can take 45 to 60 days. And once hired, the orientation and on-boarding process were critical to ensuring the success of the new hire.

“In HR, you’re constantly training and developing people,” he said.

Sadler said education is a two-way street.

“Industry has to provide some level of support once they become part of that industry,” she said. “You’ve got two people on either side ensuring that workforce is receiving the education they need throughout the course of their life and career.”

Paulsen said it was important that schools didn’t forget about technical skills and training.

“Level the playing field for the kids. Let them know that no matter what route they take, there is success for them. Don’t dismiss one for the other,” she said.

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.