According to those responsible for recruiting new jobs in Wilson County and also decision makers in existing industries here, the demand for skilled employees has never been at the level that it is today.
“We have industries knocking on our door almost weekly that are interested in locating in Wilson County,” said G.C. Hixson, executive director of the county’s Joint Economic and Community Development Board, the quasi-governmental agency that oversees industrial and commercial development locally, “and almost always their first question is about the available workforce.”
Hixson said industrial prospects as well as companies that are here and looking to expand are seeking employees with skills.
He classified the need for a skilled workforce as the “greatest challenge” facing his office.
Royce Slaven, president of Orchid International, an automotive parts supplier located in Mt. Juliet, said about 25 percent of his company’s total workforce today is comprised of skilled workers.
And Jim Stoll at Mayekawa USA, a company with operations in Lebanon’s South Perimeter Industrial Park, tells a similar story.
Stoll says that about 30 percent of Mayekawa employees here are in what he would classify as skill positions.
Skilled workers are described as welders, electricians, IT specialists, and others who have received special training in a particular field that warrants they have attained a certain level of accredited expertise.
Much of what Hixson is saying about the need for skill workers is being echoed by the local industrial community.
“As we shift more to technology, our need for more skilled workers is going to increase. We now are having to recruit out of state to fill many of our skill positions and about a third are commuting from outside the county,” Slaven said.
Slaven’s company, in Wilson County for some 20 years, manufacture’s a variety of hinges for the automobile industry and is one of the nation’s largest suppliers of its kind providing millions of door, console and other types of hinges annually.
Stoll said Mayekawa has been able to fill jobs requiring certain skills with “people from the surrounding area, but the quality of applicants is less than optimal.”
Most of the skill jobs at Mayekawa, a manufacturer of high quality air compressors and other associated products, are welders and electricians.
Just as Slaven, Stoll said he anticipates an even greater need for skilled workers in the next three to five years.
The latest buzz word being applied to a specific category of skilled workers is mechatronics, which, Hixson explains, is a combination of mechanical, electrical, and computer based engineering, and is one of the “hottest” career tracks being pursued nationwide.
For Wilson County to remain competitive in the pursuit to build quality employment opportunities, Hixson said “we must lean on our leaders in education to help us first impress upon students that the need is present and then provide for them the necessary avenues and teaching settings to learn these skills.”
He said the Tennessee College of Applied Technology, a state institute to open in Lebanon in the spring on the campus of the former Lebanon High School, is one example of a “major step in the right direction toward resolving the void in the skill workforce.
Hixson credited members of the county commission and other local government leaders for recognizing the value and need of this special opportunity afforded Wilson County a couple of years ago and seeing that necessary infrastructure and funding was put in place to meet the requirements imposed by the state.
“This is a beginning and a very good beginning,” Hixson said, “but in order to be successful we must take our message about the need for a skilled workforce to our high schools.”
Another important and timely initiative for the skilled workforce need, Hixson pointed out, is the Tennessee Promise program, which beginning with the class of 2015, will provide Tennessee high school graduates the opportunity to attend a community or technical college free of tuition and fees.
“Ultimately to be successful we are going to have to impress upon students 16 to 18 years old that there are going to be good jobs available for them with good pay, good benefits and long term stability if they will pursue and master a technical skill,” Hixson said.
Slaven, speaking along the same lines, urged public schools to recognize the need for technical training saying “seeds are going to have to be planted” in order to grow a skilled workforce for the future.
According to Slaven, it’s not unusual for a seasoned technician or skilled worker to earn a “six figure salary.” He said parents should be encouraging their children to take a look at other options besides insisting that they go to college.