By John Lawrence:

A legacy of agriculture and distribution has left this region home to a low-skill workforce engaged in mostly repetitive, non-innovative jobs.  The Memphis MSA ranks 83 out of 100 on the Brookings Skills Gap Index.  Despite a largely low-skill job market, average worker skills do not align.  And, the region ranks 91st out of 100-largest metros in high-tech industry employment.

Long term solutions are wide ranging and complicated.  However, logical starting points exist.

We need a network capable of anticipating future employer needs.  We must purposefully connect industry to educators and training facilities.  We can increase career readiness and basic skills programs, and we can strive for an integrated No-Wrong-Door system with a career pathway of sequenced coursework and credentialing.

Immediate Opportunity

According to a jobs analysis performed by the Greater Memphis Chamber and Workforce Investment Network, Memphis-area manufacturers plan to hire more than 4,000 employees prior to 2016.

These jobs and skills are consistent with ongoing needs from the following regional industries:

  • Biomedical Device
  • Chemical Manufacturing
  • Consumer Goods
  • Clothing Manufacturers
  • Food Manufacturers
  • Heavy and Light Metal Fabricators
  • Paper Product Manufacturers

The top five expanding industries in the United States by space usage according to the NAIOP Research Foundation are: fabricated metal product manufacturing, plastics and rubber product manufacturing, wood product manufacturing, nonmetallic mineral product manufacturing and furniture product manufacturing.

Career Readiness Certification aims to support skill development and enable workplace entry for the lowest-skilled workers.  A regional workforce analysis and labor market assessment produced by Younger Associates found that 100% of regional employers with certified employees found value in the Career Readiness Certification program and 75% thought their employees were better prepared than others.

Ongoing Problem

Despite there being three unemployed workers for every job posted, major employers still have difficulty filling positions with qualified candidates.

In the Younger report, 95% of those surveyed had never hired anyone with a Career Readiness Certification and 57% of prospective workers surveyed were not aware of the program.

In the Made in Memphis Manufacturing Industry Survey of 2013, respondents reported few effective job-announcement strategies.  Few employers reported working with educational institutions to recruit employees.  Employers interviewed suggested that they go to great lengths to qualify employees, using online hiring assessments and extensive orientation programs, continual in-house training on company policies and union-backed metrics.  Workforce development professionals and educators were also interviewed and offered that employees are often unaware of career pathways available and the value of education to job advancement.

Finally, there appears to be no mechanism to regularly anticipate employer hiring needs without periodically ramping up a special market study.

Looking To The Future

The consulting firm McKinsey and Company published an extensive study of global manufacturing in 2012, titled “Manufacturing the future: The next era of global growth and innovation.”  Using an adjusted industry analysis, Brookings suggests Greater Memphis specializes in three of their five broad manufacturing segments: global technologies, regional processing, and resource-intensive tradable commodities.

Resource intensive tradable commodities include the products and markets that Memphis has had historical trading and production advantages.  Regional processing includes production of goods that must be produced close to their final market due to their difficulty or expense to transport.  Global technologies include computers and precision equipment, including medical devices, in which Memphis has renowned advantages.

Address Today’s Need & Build Tomorrow’s Model

Today, promising workforce training programs exist but are not being accessed by enough employers or prospective employees.  Demand from existing and incoming manufacturers is unmet by the current low-skilled workforce.  Advanced and emerging industries like bio-tech, metal fabrication and commodities processing require even higher skills.

The market must capitalize on the large, available workforce by aggressively preparing them to enter the new manufacturing economy.  Memphis is already moving toward a higher-skill market with the opening of new advanced manufacturing plants.  If this trend is to continue, a skilled workforce that understands the value of advanced manufacturing positions is critical.

Whether we are talking about a Workforce Employer Collaborative or Sector Specific Apprenticeship Programs, the time for movement on an Industry-Driven Workforce Development Initiative is now.

The Series:

Part One: Creating a Process on Economic Development

Part Two: Securing the Global Logistics Brand

Part Three: Diversifying the Economy Beyond Logistics

Part Four: Leveraging Assets for International Trade

Part Six: Organizing for Innovative Entrepreneurial Growth – Monday (10/7/13)

Part Seven: Connecting Jobs, Workers, Institutions & Activity Centers – Wednesday (10/9/13)

Part Eight: Tracking the Market to Understand Emerging Opportunities – Monday (10/14/13)

Part Nine: Prioritizing First-Step Initiatives – Wednesday — (10/16/13)