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VOL. 36 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 17, 2012

Better statewide workforce training urged

BILL DRIES | The Daily News

Print | Front Page | Email this story | Email reporter

MEMPHIS – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has been hearing the same thing as he travels across the state holding forums on higher education.

Tennessee’s technology centers don’t have the equipment that employers want to see their workers trained on before they hire them.

Haslam heard it again earlier this month during the latest forum at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

For the forums, Haslam usually has a group of higher education leaders, faculty and business leaders around a table, which prompts one of his first questions to the group: “How do we prepare the workforce that our employers need?”

The equipment issue came up, one that was raised by the leaders of the technology centers.

The business leaders raised more fundamental issues and urged the state to go broader than training workers for jobs on specific machines or technology now being used.

“Evaluate the trends. Look forward and plan ahead,” said Christine Richards, general counsel for FedEx Corp., who emphasized the need to be ahead of the curve in engineering and innovation pursuits. “The state needs to be doing more to advance programs that will meet employment needs five and 10 years out and not waiting for employers to say information technology is going to become the latest piece, for example.”

Tommy Carls, vice president of development at Medtronic Inc., said the medical device company has had success in partnering with the University of Memphis and UTHSC.

“They turn out students that we can utilize pretty much right after they’ve graduated in product development and in research,” Carls said. “The area that we are missing so far … is on regulatory requirements. … We’re having to do a lot more cross technical quality engineering processes – manufacturing controls … and our universities aren’t really prepared to provide students for this level.”

Medtronic is now working on undergraduate programs with the U of M that will work on developing engineers who can look across the manufacturing process.

Countywide school board chairman Billy Orgel talked about a technology gap he’s noticed with one child in a private school and another in the Memphis City Schools system.

“My child at private school has been using a computer since fourth grade and carries it with her, takes it to school. … Our kids aren’t using computers unless they are in a lab or unless they are privately funded by a PTA or a parent organization,” he said. “We’re behind the times. We’re not employing technology for our students.”

Larry Gibson, plant manager at Unilever’s ice cream plant in Covington, said the problem isn’t a race to keep up with technology because for manufacturing plants in America the basics of that software and hardware have remained the same with a few adaptations.

“Every state has the exact same problem,” Gibson said. “We are really desperate for technical skills – people who understand human-machine interface and how to run an automatic packaging line.”

Gibson said the problem goes to basic education skills not changing technology.

“There’s something that goes back to the fundamentals of education. You have to know how to do math,” he told Haslam. “It’s not like the technology is leaping forward, it’s creeping forward.”

Gibson talked of having to show a worker how to use a ruler.

Mary Anna Quinn, senior vice president at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, said the hospital has encountered other basic education problems.

“We don’t have problems with people coming into the workforce and using a computer. They can do that,” she said. “Where we do see problems is people coming into the workforce and they can’t write a sentence. … It’s just basic skills. They’ve just come out of college and they can’t write sentences.”

State Rep. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, reacted with surprise.

The veteran legislator has been present for much of the Tennessee Legislature’s recent debate about raising state standards for teachers as well as students.

“We don’t need higher standards. We just need to keep what we already have,” said the retired educator. “You learn how to write a paragraph in third or fourth grade. Something is amiss with that.”