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VOL. 42 | NO. 36 | Friday, September 7, 2018

Four leaders look to future of state’s job growth

By Linda Bryant

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The Ledger asked four career development leaders in Tennessee for their advice about how to approach the job market. We also asked them about promising careers and what issues are important to tackle as the state adds jobs, new industries and more education and training.

How is the Tennessee partnering with private industry to advance jobs growth and skills advancement?

Burns Phillips, Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development commissioner:

“The digitization of everything, if you will, is changing the world in which we live, work and conduct business at a velocity and to a breadth and depth unlike anything we have experienced before. Furthermore, it’s transforming entire systems across countries, companies, industries and technologies.”

“This reality causes businesses themselves to sometimes have difficulty knowing exactly what skill sets they may need in their future workforce. It is clear that the kinds of jobs in demand are changing as the demand for manual labor declines, automation replaces more and more knowledge work and skills-based technology demands more highly skilled workers.

“We are often approached by businesses to visit with them, observe their operations and workforce then collaborate with them in upskilling their existing workforce to meet their rapidly evolving needs. Collaboration involves bringing many different state agencies together and leveraging their resources to assist the business.”

“Members of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development have traveled across the state meeting with small, medium and large employers creating awareness of the rapid changes technology is, and will, be bringing. We have offered state staff to conduct SWOT analysis (a study undertaken by an organization to identify its internal strengths and weaknesses, as well as its external opportunities and threats) to determine immediate and future needs related to technology and existing demands.”

‘We have partnered with construction (Clayton Homes); Toyota (automotive); Lee Company (HVAC, plumbing, electrical); UCOR @ Y-12 (construction) as well as trade organizations where resources and efforts are limited.

“We have addressed the Tennessee State Board of Education, Chambers of Commerce, Rotary Clubs and Industrial Boards speaking to the ever-changing landscape of work and how it will impact future curriculums and lifelong learning. Additionally, we have made presentations to Chambers of Commerce, Rotary Clubs and Industrial Boards.”

You work with college students to guide them in their ultimate career choices. How important is it for today’s students to think about future employment while they are still in school? Are they putting too much pressure on themselves?

Kate Brooks, Evans Family Executive Director of the Vanderbilt Career Center:

“You are talking about that push-pull of passion versus practical. It can work out well for those pursuing a linear degree, which is when you know exactly what you’re doing like someone pursuing an electrical engineering degree. 

“But if you don’t know what you want to do, and you haven’t decided on a path, I think that sometimes it’s better to pursue courses that you enjoy and do well in. You get good grades so that it increases your chances of getting into graduate school and getting recommendations.”

“It’s important to use time in college to look around and explore different options. Many students can do this with the exception of certain fields like engineering and accounting where you really do need a specific body of knowledge. But many careers are flexible and open to different majors. The student needs to be able to articulate the value of that degree to their employer.”

“If a student goes into an interview and just says, “yeah, I’m an English major;” that’s probably not going to work. But they could explain the value of an English major and how they learned to analyze and understand people by reading about character development.

“Or they could talk about how they learned the importance of using specific words and how choice of words can make all the difference in an email, memo or whatever they’re writing for their future employer. It can go a long way when a student can articulate the hard work involved [in their major.]

“They end up showing their perseverance and curiosity. Employers are looking for those broad abilities.”

What’s the hardest thing or the biggest challenge for students when they are deciding on a career?

Robert Liddell, director of university career services at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga:

“Here’s a formula I keep in mind when I work with students.”

Integration: Students are interested to integrate multiple skill sets, contexts, experiences, communities and knowledge bases to a much greater degree than prior generations.

Impact: Students seek meaningful work aligning their sense of self, their sense of balance and the work itself towards an integrated wholeness. Social justice and an opportunity to close persistent inequities are also important reasons to work.

Interactivity: Students have been encouraged to develop complementary skills throughout their education by being placed into groups. These complementary skills manifest when students and younger employees break into networks (within and external of organizational ‘boundaries’) where their loyalty to their tribe and ability to contribute has been established.

Identity: Students are broadly defining their identity and are much less reliant on external validation than prior generations. Students might assert their identity when they feel underrepresented and might subordinate their identity to a social problem they find larger than themselves.

You are CEO and president of Silicon Ranch, one of the largest independent solar power producers in the country and president of the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council, an organization of companies and experts that promote advanced energy in Tennessee. Can you describe specific examples of the kinds of jobs available in this sector?

Matt Kisber, president and CEO of Silicon Ranch Corp. and president of Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council:

“The sector is quite diverse. You can look at companies like ours [Silicon Ranch] that hire electrical engineers, civil engineers, and also people that specialize in construction that are looking at dividing, building and operating power plants.

“There are companies like Shoals Technology Group in Portland that makes components for solar systems, and they export all over the world.

“You have companies like Nissan and FedEx, both of which incorporate products. For example, Nissan was the first electric vehicle manufacturer put on the mass market for sale in the United States. The manufacturing of the vehicle and the battery is done in Smyrna.”

“The whole transition from combustion to electric mobility is a huge job opportunity and job creator. You have everything from advanced manufacturing to the engineering to the designing of the battery and then the manufacturing of the battery. The advent of economical battery storage is considered to be a significant game changer. Whether a battery is being manufactured for an automobile, for home storage or to bridge storage it’s basically the same battery. We have all this manufacturing going on in Tennessee.

“And in Oak Ridge they are designing technologies that will be stronger, last longer and use less materials and battery storage in the future.”

“FedEx in Memphis is looking at all types of sustainability efforts. One example: they are using lower carbon and fuel sources for the trucks that distribute and deliver packages, and they are doing research and experimenting with renewable based fuels that could power airplanes and using lower sustainability sources to power their data centers.

“I always thought of FedEx as a package delivery company. I was corrected by Fred Smith back when I was TCED commissioner. He said, ‘We are an information technology company that happens to be in the business of delivering packages.’ There are so many aspects of FedEx that incorporate advanced energy.”

“Advanced energy is a very broad sector with diverse jobs from manufacturing to research to process. There is a company in east Tennessee called Eastman Chemical Co., and they are looking at how their processes can be more sustainable. Even a job as a chemical process operator is a great employment opportunity.

“Just look at a company like Proctor in Bradley County, where there are billion-dollar investments in manufacturing polycrystalline silicon, which is used to make solar panels as well as computer chips.

“It’s the purest man-made substance on earth, and the process to make it is extremely delicate. It takes almost a month to make a batch of polycrystalline silicon.’’