Jobs keep coming, but TN companies struggle to find qualified workers

The jobs are coming; the jobs are here.

Gov. Bill Haslam has been trekking across Middle Tennessee making one new jobs announcement after another during the past few weeks, and the numbers are mounting, into the thousands.

"In just the past six or seven weeks, we've had three companies announce expansions that will bring at least 1,000 jobs each," Haslam said this week during one of those events at auto supplier Calsonic Kansei North America in Shelbyville.

They include 1,000 jobs for Aramark and 1,000 for UBS in Nashville; and 1,200 for Calsonic, in three locations — Shelbyville, Lewisburg and Smyrna.

And there have been others that have pushed the total to well over 6,000 jobs announced in the past two months.

But there's a downside, workforce experts say: finding enough qualified applicants to fill those positions in a timely fashion, even though unemployment has been rising this summer in the Nashville area.

"Last month, we had 60,000 people still looking for work in Middle Tennessee, and that has been going up over the past nine months," said David Penn, director of the Businessand Economic Research Center at the Jones College of Business at Middle Tennessee State University.

"There are people who want to work, but are they the people these companies want to hire? There are jobs available, but it seems that employers are having a hard time getting the word out so they can fill those positions. Nissan has jobs, and Rutherford County still has 10,000 unemployed.

"The raw numbers are there (of people seeking work)," Penn said. "But it may take a while for people to realize there are jobs to be had locally."

Outlying counties have it even rougher, with unemployment rates much higher than the state average of 8.5 percent in July, said Jan McKeel, director of the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance. Marshall County — where Calsonic will add jobs in Lewisburg — had a July jobless rate of 10.6 percent, she said. Closer to Nashville, the numbers are better: Rutherford County's rate was just 7.2 percent seeking work.

The recruiting challenge

In finding qualified applicants, though, the problem goes beyond a lack of trained workers for specific jobs, an issue that Middle Tennessee has been grappling with for the past three years — especially in skilled trades, such as advanced manufacturing.

Those aren't the only jobs going unfilled, employers say.

"We're going to have 1,200 new jobs, and we need to get the word out that we are hiring," Calsonic Human Resources Vice President Robert J. Masteller said after the announcement of his company's expansion on Tuesday.

Calsonic will add 526 jobs in Lewisburg, 489 in Shelbyville and 183 in Smyrna, but that's on top of about 1,000 new workers the company has hired over the past year, Masteller said, noting that recruiting has become a challenge.

That's true for Nissan as well, where employment and available jobs have risen by more than 3,600 since the company began expanding again about two years ago as its Middle Tennessee plants, in Smyrna and Decherd, and began adding new products.

"We will continue to look for innovative ways to recruit and fill these positions," said Nissan manufacturing spokesman Justin Saia. "This is why Nissan is partnering with the state on a new training center that will replace Nissan's nearly 30-year-old current facility. This is a great opportunity for us to partner with the state and higher education to develop educational programs to meet the current and future needs of our workforce."

Gov. Bill Haslam said at a meeting with Tennessean editors and reporters Wednesday that the Nashville area has become a major draw for companies but has been limited by a shortage of workers with the right skills.

"We've had some really good success with job announcements lately, and there's been two or three big ones here," Haslam said. "But every one of those has said, 'Oh, by the way, we would grow more or we will grow more if you could convince us you have the right talent available for us.' "

Workforce strengths

Employers looking to expand and bring significant numbers of new jobs don't go into a community blindly, just hoping that they will find enough candidates to fill the new positions, said Ralph Schulz, president of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

"When these companies are expanding or relocating, one of first things they do is an assessment of the workforce," he said. "They look at data such as how many college graduates stay in the area, and they look at workforce demographics."

What they find, he said, is that Nashville can sustain their expansions.

"This region has a younger population on average than a lot of other areas," Schulz said.

"And in-migration has been strong. People in the 18-34 age group are coming here and staying. The companies also look at our cost of living, and our disposable-income formula is very positive. Young people know that their friends are buying a house faster and getting their school bills paid faster here. One of our secrets is that economically, we're a very healthy place."

There are challenges, though, especially in finding enough trained workers with certain skills that are in high demand, Schulz said.

"Do we have a strain? Yes. There is a constant deficit in IT talent, financial management and higher-tech skilled trades," he said. "We do have shortages. In Chattanooga, Volkswagen has found that deficit to be so pronounced that they have been working to develop their own education programs."

That's going on in Middle Tennessee, too, with technology training programs supported by employers such as Nissan and Bridgestone, Schulz said.

"Bridgestone has an arrangement with Motlow College, and some of these partnerships are going down to the high school level to recruit students," he said.

"We do have the workforce, but we're dancing along the edge. Hiring depends on in-migration and retaining post-secondary school graduates. If either of those weakens, we will have trouble filling those jobs."


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