By Scott Robertson
You’ve heard by now the admonitions that it’s no longer good enough for us to do business as we have in the past – that Johnson City can no longer think in terms of just competing with Kingsport and Bristol, or even with Oak Ridge and Asheville – that we are in competition with every other community in the world. Companies can locate their facilities virtually anywhere, and if we want the jobs brought here, we have to compete with everywhere.
Here’s just one example. The communities of Northeast Tennessee have long cooperated in the ownership and operation of Tri-Cities Airport. Right now the authority that runs that airport on all our behalf is seeking funds to grade the land on the far side of the main runway in order to create an aerospace-based industrial and business park. The goal is to bring in businesses that would benefit from being adjacent to the runway, such as aircraft maintenance and refit companies. Those companies bring high-paying jobs with them and as a result, are in demand from Anderson, Indiana’s Aero Industrial Park to Shanghai, China’s Zhuqiao Aero Industrial Park; the competition literally runs from A to Z.
How do regions such as ours set ourselves apart in worldwide competition? The thing most companies are looking for is a verifiably qualified workforce. The words “verifiably qualified” are important. We can talk about our region’s long-standing culture of untiring work ethic and devotion to duty all we want. Arguments like those, however, lose out to arguments like, “our region boasts more than 500 individuals who are gold-level certified in your company’s field of business.” The pudding goes to regions that can offer proof.
Just to our northeast, economic developers in Southwest Virginia are being frustrated by the fact that their available workforce of former coal miners has a broad skillset that should be exciting to advanced manufacturing firms – the former miners know how to do a variety of industrial tasks, they work well in difficult situations, their problem-solving skills are first-rate – yet those miners lack the certifications to prove they have those skills. In many cases, the miners would have to drive significant distances and take continuing education classes just to be able to take the tests that would prove to potential employers they have the skills they’ve been using for years.
In Northeast Tennessee, we have a new opportunity to put ourselves ahead of the curve on this. The counties of the First Tennessee Development District* announced last week that all eight are participating in the ACT Work Ready Communities program.
I call it a new opportunity. Actually, the Alliance for Business and Training has been working to get Northeast Tennesseans certified with ACT National Career Readiness Certificates (NCRCs) for some time. But this new effort by the counties to get enough workers to earn those certifications goes a step farther. An individual who earns a career readiness certificate is better able to find high-paying employment. But a community that has a high percentage of its available workforce with those certifications is more likely to attract the companies that will continue to bring more of those jobs into the region.
Several employers in the region already recognize the value of the credential in their hiring process and are actively engaged in promoting its use. Eastman requires job candidates to have NCRCs in order to be considered for some positions in the company. Mountain States Health Alliance is another large employer using NCRCs to ensure the job candidates it considers are, in essence, pre-qualified ahead of other potential hires.
If you have influence in your company’s decision-making process, I would encourage you to help the community by taking the no-strings-attached step that will help Washington County move forward in this effort. Employers can show their support simply by going to workreadycommunities.org/business/form and indicating they either “recognize” or “recommend” the NCRC. The employer name will be listed as a supporting employer for each county selected and will help each selected county achieve its employer supporting goals. That’s it. There is no other paperwork or obligation. This is simply an opportunity to continue to help close the skills gap at your company and along the way contribute to the prosperity of our region.
Washington County has a goal of 71 businesses. Derby Publishing, which publishes News & Neighbor and The Business Journal of Tri-Cities TN/VA, was the 15th to sign on. We encourage you to join us in helping bring those jobs home to Washington County and Northeast Tennessee for years to come.
*Sullivan County is a year ahead of the other seven counties, having begun taking part earlier.