‘The Sky is the Limit:’ Area students explore opportunities at workforce development events

A group of local high school students learn about the career paths available at the A.O. Smith plant in Johnson City. Last Friday’s Manufacturing Day event drew around 175 students from six local high schools. PHOTOS BY DAVE ONGIE
Debbie Roach and Richard Cox represented ETSU at the A.O. Smith event last Friday.

By Dave Ongie, News Editor

As James Monroe, president of the Upper East Tennessee Skills Committee, looked around the crowded ballroom inside the MeadowView Convention Center in Kingsport last Thursday morning, he spoke passionately about the golden opportunity that lies ahead for the 500-plus high school students that attended the annual Fall Leadership Conference.

“These kids, they might not realize it, but they could work for NASA one day,” Monroe said. “They really could. The sky is the limit.”

Monroe has 30 years of experience in the trades and knows first-hand what a good living a person can make by learning a trade and becoming a dependable worker. Now he’s an instructor at Happy Valley High School, where he works to equip the next generation of workers with the skills necessary to make the seamless transition into the workforce.

With an entire generation of skilled workers nearing retirement age, Monroe said the young people at Thursday’s event are in high demand as they prepare to enter the workforce.

“People my age are getting ready to retire,” Monroe said. “We want to hang up our tool belts and go enjoy the rest of our lives. We want these kids to know that these opportunities for them are so vast for them right now. There are jobs everywhere, and they pay really good money.”

Monroe recounted the story of a former student who graduated last year and got a job with Pike Electric out of Kentucky. The student made such a good impression that the company quickly sent him to linemen school, and he stands to make over $100,000 per year once he completes the program.

The Upper East Tennessee Skills Committee encompasses 21 high schools in 12 counties, and the students in our region are establishing a reputation for doing excellent work. Equipped by excellent CTE programs at their schools and strong advisement from UETSC members, students from our region won 40 of the 72 gold medals at the most recent SkillsUSA state competition in Chattanooga.

While developing strong workers is commendable, local business owners are finding it to be half the battle. The other half is convincing talented young people to stay close to home in order to avoid the “brain drain” that occurs when they relocate.

With that in mind, A.O. Smith hosted its second-annual Manufacturing Day event at its Johnson City plant last Friday morning for area high school students. Approximately 175 students from six high schools toured the facility and learned about all the career paths available, everything from accounting to engineering to assembly work.

Mike Galloway, the human resources manager at A.O. Smith, said a low unemployment rate has created a high demand for entry-level employees, and he was hopeful Friday’s event would open the eyes of the students to the opportunities the company has to offer. It takes around 1,100 employees to power the factory that produces every residential water heater sold by Lowe’s Home Improvement stores.

“What we’re trying to get out of this is to get high school kids interested,” he said.

For students who are interested in pursuing careers that will require postsecondary degrees in accountancy or engineering, ETSU was on hand at the event to showcase their programs. Debbie Roach with ETSU’s College of Business and Technology was at the event with Richard Cox, an assistant professor of engineering technology.

Cox said ETSU is committed to helping young people in our region prepare themselves to take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead of them.

“We’re preparing them to come to places like this and contribute immediately,” he said. “We have this elaborate manufacturing operation right here in Johnson City, so part of my job is to prepare students for positions here and with other industry in the area.”


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