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WIN-WIN OPPORTUNITY

December 18, 2018

By JAMES EVANS
Rutherford County Schools

Key industries in Rutherford County are facing challenges. 

Parents and students, it’s time to take note.

The solutions to these challenges are resulting in incredible opportunities for students in Rutherford County — both short- and long-term. 

To understand what’s happening, you first must look at the big economic picture affecting Rutherford County and other areas of Middle Tennessee. 

The Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce has done so and has identified five key industries within the county that are experiencing rapid growth and have multiple jobs available.

Those industries are manufacturing, construction, health care, information technology and supply chain management, and they have been nicknamed the “High Five” of Rutherford County because they have a large presence and have multiple employment opportunities in need of being filled. 

These are high-wage, career positions with loads of long-term growth potential — but it’s becoming more difficult to find qualified individuals to fill these roles, especially considering the county’s low unemployment rate. 

To help address these needs, the Chamber has facilitated the creation of five industry councils made up of company representatives, business advocates and education leaders. The councils typically meet monthly, and at each meeting, they work to create opportunities that will attract students to their fields, provide training and certifications for those students while in high school, and put them on a pathway to long-term success. 

It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved. 

Students learn and take part in various career options, and businesses are creating a workforce pipeline to sustain their operations. 

Beth Duffield is the senior vice president for education and workforce development at the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce, a title which she admits is a “mouthful.” And while she may not be a household name known by most parents, her role bridging schools and businesses has been vital. 

“I get up every day thinking about how we can help students make better connections to their future, their career and college, and also how we help fill the thousands of jobs that are available on any given day in Rutherford County across all sectors,” Duffield said. 

Duffield worked extensively with a study that was completed in 2015 to identify workforce needs in Rutherford County. It was completed by a non-profit organization called Jobs for the Future, which was working with the state of Tennessee. Rutherford County was selected as one of the targeted areas. 

“Often we get lumped in with Nashville and Middle Tennessee,” Duffield explained. “This (study) gave us our own data which told us that for the next 10 years, our major growth would be in careers with health care, technology, construction, supply chain and manufacturing. Based on that data, we started having conversations with employers.”

Thus, the five industry councils — which are led by industry representatives, not the Chamber or educators — were born. 

One of the oldest and most active of the groups is the Health Care Council, which is chaired by Chris West, vice president of Human Resources for Murfreesboro-based National Healthcare Corp.

 “Beth Duffield with the Chamber, when she came on board, she immediately started to facilitate these councils and I got involved through her,” West said. “It’s been a real pleasure over the last several years to be a part of this because it’s really starting to come together.”

Eight of Rutherford County’s high schools have health science career pathways offered, and the Health Care Council has been an active partner in providing meaningful opportunities for students to explore medical careers before graduating. 

In fact, West has personal experience with how those opportunities have benefited students. 

“My daughter just graduated from Siegel High School and she had a clinical internship and now she’s over at UT Chattanooga,” West said. “What that did, as far as her clinical internship at Siegel, (it) grew her and got her ready for education. It also really convinced her that health care was her right direction and validated that, so she goes into college much more confident and self-directed.”

Last year, students at two Rutherford high schools were able to complete their Certified Nursing Assistant accreditation and students at another earned their Certified Medical Assistant accreditation. 

Plans are already under way to expand those programs this school year, and West hopes to see these types of programs feed directly into the health care industry within Rutherford County. 

“The vision is to really have the school system, just like in baseball, to be the farm system for health care careers,” said West, who was born and raised in Rutherford County and graduated from Riverdale High School. 

Other industry councils are also seeing dividends, which in turn, are benefiting current high school students. 

La Vergne-based Ingram Content Group — which is one of the industry partners serving on the Supply Chain Management Council — recently agreed to “experiment” with hiring current high school students for seasonal work during the holiday season. 

The company interviewed and hired about 30 students from LaVergne High School, Smyrna High School and Stewarts Creek High School. In addition to the seasonal workers, Ingram also has students participating in a worked-based study program. 

The company usually doesn’t use workers who are under 18 years old, but through its work with the Supply Chain Council, decided to see if a partnership with the schools would work. 

“So far I would call it a success,” senior operations manager Janice Greer said.  “We really need the extra help (during the holiday season) because we’re really busy.”

She added about the students: “They’ve been great, showing up early and waiting. So far, so good.” 

Andrew Pavey, a senior at Stewarts Creek, is one of the students who has been working at Ingram.

“I work for a landscaping company, but with Thanksgiving, it was going out of season,” Pavey said, “and (the Ingram job) was seasonal for winter, and so it interested me in that way.”

And while the initial benefit of the jobs may only be short-term, it also serves to expose students to the various career options available in the supply chain industry. 

The components and career opportunities within the industry are often misunderstood or thought only to involve logistics, which is one category of the industry. While in fact, supply chain actually involves every step of the process in delivering goods from creation to consumers. 

Beyond the direct benefits to students, the five industry councils also serve the purpose of bringing both education leaders and industry experts to the table and to align their mutual efforts. 

“What we are doing here, by and large, is providing more opportunity for the students and providing more long-term career growth for the students,” said Paul Lawson, a senior project manager for Turner Construction Company and chair of the Construction Council. 

“The reason we are able to do that is because we have educators who are willing to listen to industry and are willing to make a change and see the opportunity to teach students for a career and not just teach students for a test,” explained Lawson, who also is a lifelong resident of Rutherford County and a graduate of Oakland High School. 

The Construction Council has been going strong the past couple of years working to inform students and parents about the diversity of careers available. Turner and other construction industry partners have hosted multiple trades tours and career days so students can witness what’s involved with modern-day construction projects. 

“We have to communicate that to parents and we have to find that conduit to make a direct connection,” Lawson said. “It’s not something that’s going to change immediately. There are a lot of workforce development programs out there that are focused on postsecondary and adult learners that have an immediate impact on workforce, but I think what we’re trying to do here is create a long-term conduit for workforce to supply the demand.”

Information Technology Council chair Sonia Sappenfield agrees. 

She serves as a senior engagement manager for Acklen Avenue, a software development company. She’s held multiple positions within the IT industry and got involved in the IT Council to ensure students were being prepared for real-world needs. 

“Originally, my passion was, ‘what is the curriculum they’re offering in high schools and is it matching what the industry is looking for? Are we preparing students or what are we doing to prepare,’” Sappenfield said. 

The importance of social skills and being able to interact with those who are not “techies” is one aspect that is often missed within IT education programs, Sappenfield said. 

“I was not a techie,” Sappenfield explained. “I knew how to turn a computer on but I never ever dreamed of being a developer. …IT is so vast and you can do so much with that degree.”

Dan Caldwell is a senior manager of learning pathways for Nissan North America and also serves on the Advanced Manufacturing Council. He frequently collaborates with the Chamber on its workforce development initiatives and with the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Smyrna, which also houses Nissan’s employee training facility. 

During the past few months, Nissan has worked with Smyrna Middle School through an “externship” program that exposed teachers to the work inside the plant and also brought Nissan workers to the school to interact with students. 

Caldwell believes grasping students’ interests early — all the way back to elementary school — is a crucial component for career exploration.

“What we want to do is open students’ eyes to the possibilities for not only careers, but the technical competencies that they’re going to need to serve in those careers in the future,” Caldwell said. “Because we know, as fast as technology is changing, there’s going to be a lot of careers that haven’t been defined yet.”

Rutherford County Schools plans to continue developing opportunities for students to connect with business leaders and chart pathways to industry certifications and post-secondary education, whether that be at technical schools, community colleges or universities. 

Through the efforts of the industry councils, Duffield expects Rutherford County will benefit for years to come. 

“We hope that as students grow up and complete their K-12 experience and possibly stay and do their postsecondary training — whether that’s at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Murfreesboro or Smyrna, or Motlow Smyrna or MTSU or maybe they go away to college and come back — we want them to understand what career opportunities are available to them here,” Duffield said. “We have a great quality of life in Rutherford County and we have great career opportunities for both students and parents.”

To learn more about Rutherford County’s workforce development program, and opportunities for industry partners and students alike, visit www.rutherfordworks.com.

 

PHOTOS / JAMES EVANS

(1) Smyrna High School junior Braxton Folds works alongside Ingram trainer Kay Schultz as part of an "experiment" the company is trying to hire local high school workers. The company reports the students have been doing an remarkable job and the program is proving to be a success. 

(2) Members of the Information Technology Council

(3) Members of the Supply Chain Management Council

(4) Members of the Construction Council 

(5) Members of the Advanced Manufacturing Council

(6) Members of the Healthcare Council