East Tennessee Regional Leadership Association host workforce roundtable

Chuck Carter, career and technical education supervisor for Hamblen County schools, speaks at Walters State Community College as ColorTech President Alex Rom-Roginski listens.

The workforce development tour of Morristown by the 2019 class of the East Tennessee Regional Leadership Association continued on Wednesday with a roundtable discussion by stakeholders in the industrial sector.

Held at Walters State Community College, the morning session included Alex Rom-Roginski, president of Colortech; Jim Sexton, senior director/plant manager of MAHLE; Keith Andrews, vice president of product development at Tuff Torq; Marshall Ramsey, president of the Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce and Chuck Carter, Supervisor of Career and Technical Education for Hamblen County Schools.

Andrews told the leadership class Tuff Torq employs 500 workers through its busy production season, December-April; those employees include 35 maintenance technicians who “keep things going.” The workforce at the plant includes a number of Latino employees, many of whom were forced to drop out of WSCC due to out-of-state tuition requirements.

During the discussion, Andrews said there is a need to continuously chase a workforce, due in part to the seasonal demands of production, and that the goal is to redefine employment seeking.

“We had a model that had worked really well for the past 10-15 years, but now with the employment market changing, we are having to redefine how we employ our workforce,” Andrews said.

“We’re at a point in our business where we are starting to ask the question, ‘do we continue to increase our sales quantity, or do we change our sales goal because of the employment situation? If we increase sales, can we get the workforce or do we add automation?’ If we add automation, we’ll still need a technical workforce to support that, so we need the CTE programs,” he said.

He added, with regard to the Latino population — “That’s a tremendous workforce that we need to capitalize on. They’re very sharp kids; they are willing to work. We need to get the state to change that (Board of Regents schools consider undocumented students as out-of-state students) so we can educate that workforce and put them to work here in Hamblen County.”

Andrews reiterated a statement made in an earlier session by Dr. Jeff Perry, Hamblen County Schools Superintendent, that high school guidance counselors are key in the effort to change thinking about manufacturing jobs. Tuff Torq has participated in the CTE externship program that puts teachers directly into local plant environments for, on average, one week.

“That’s one thing that I suggested, that they have the guidance counselors also participate in the program, so they can understand what the workforce needs are, because they are the ones who talk to the kids and tell them which route to take,” Andrews said.

There was an audible response by class members to Ramsey announcing there are 109 manufacturers in Hamblen County, although it is the third smallest county, according to land mass, in the state.

“In a lot of your communities, you can count on two hands – there are an average of 10 — the number of manufacturers,” Ramsey said.

On average, there are 12 site visits by prospective companies per year. The county draws a workforce of approximately 400,000 from eight surrounding counties, within a 40-mile radius.

“We land one or two companies a year, which pressures all of us,” Ramsey said.

The out-of-county employee numbers were instrumental in attracting Van Hool to the East Tennessee Progress Center. The company should be hiring within a year’s time according to Ramsey (plant construction is set to begin in August), and will initially hire 650 workers.

“We showed them our workforce pipeline,” Ramsey said.

Four Hamblen County Schools externs, including two counselors, a middle school teacher and kindergarten-level teacher, are currently at MAHLE, participating in what Sexton called “boot camp.” At the plant, externs are subjected to basic, intermediate and advanced math tests, as are new employees regardless of their educational training.

“This is the best group we’ve had,” Sexton said, telling the class that the tests include trigonometry, which is used daily at the plant that runs 24 hours, seven days a week and has over 1,600 machine tools on site, along with 5-axis and 7-axis robots. The plant is fully-automated, incorporating a hands-free process from the time the product goes on the machine line until it comes off.

“This group had the highest average of test scores of any group we’ve had come in,” Sexton said. “If you think about the educators, especially in the lower levels, they really haven’t been exposed to trig in some time, but the abilities are still there, so we were very impressed with that.”

Colortech is currently hosting three externs at its facilities in the Morristown Area Industrial District. The company also utilizes co-op students from the University of Tennessee, Tennessee Technical University and the University of Kentucky, as well as high school student interns through the CTE program.

The thinking is, ‘How do we help educate the youth to possibilities?’ Rom-Roginski said.

He said people who have never taken a tour of a local manufacturer don’t realize that in addition to the production line, there are positions in the mechanical and engineering fields, along with sales and marketing.

“The reality is, there’s an awful lot of positions available for workforce development,” he said. “Some of our best success stories have been people who have come in off the street and worked their way up and are making well into six figures now, in a job they never would have dreamt they could have had 20-some years ago. They had the work ethic. They didn’t have the opportunity to have the formal education, but they had the intelligence to do it.”

“So it’s really, ‘how do we give back so that everyone can be successful in the community?’” Rom-Roginski said.