Conference attracts prospective employers

Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Tribune photo by Clint Confehr Jonathan Brown, president of U.S. Tank and Cryogenics, stands with some of the metal bottles that are refabricated at the plant in Lewisburg's Business Park.

Lewisburg-area employers met Friday at the Career Center on South Ellington Parkway with leaders of the South Central Tennessee Workforce Board to say what they want from new employees.

"This conference is to put into action things that you need for a trained workforce," Mike Wiles, executive director of the Marshall County Economic and Community Development Board, told several dozen business leaders.

Wiles and other local leaders are painfully aware of layoffs and furloughs at local factories, notably the Sanford plant being closed this year, so they want people who are losing their jobs to get trained for jobs that are becoming available.

"Times are tough," Jan McKeel, executive director of the South Central Tennessee Workforce Board, said, turning to how her board and others suggest displaced workers use their time wisely.

"This should be a time to gear-up to be ready when the economy comes back roaring," McKeel said to illustrate the boards' service for employees. That includes retraining through classes tailor-made for workers and employers.

And so tough times are when employers are approached by these government service workers.

"We could take wild guesses, but it's better to ask you what you need," she said.

Training programs can be organized, she said. State Labor Commissioner James G. Neeley has money to spend on training programs for prospective employees and those already working.

"Tell us what skills need to be developed in your existing workforce," McKeel said. "They need to be more productive and valuable employees."

The conference also revealed some job openings.

"We've been in the hiring mode this past year," said John Boutwell, human resources manager at Teledyne Technologies Inc. in the Lewisburg Industrial Park. "And we expect to hire through this year."

Applicants are warned against applying directly "all at once," Boutwell said, and McKeel responded: "We'll channel them through the Workforce Center" located at the Columbia State Community College building on South Ellington Parkway.

"We have money to put training together," McKeel said of appropriations available through the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. "The money is there. We need ideas on how to spend it."

Wiles surveyed the employers to determine what skills they need in employees.

Boutwell said Teledyne hired 65 people last year, but he declined to speculate how many might be hired this year.

Employees are provided detailed instructions on computers, so employees need to be able to read and follow instructions, Boutwell said.

"People on the production floor go through a three-week training class," he continued. "You have to pass to stay on. There are some tests involved."

Meanwhile, U.S. Tank and Cryogenics, the first business established in Lewisburg's Business Park on Mooresville Highway, has emerged from furloughs and the company's president, Jonathan E. Brown attended the workforce development conference.

"We just got off a layoff mode," Brown said in his office a few hours after the mid-day conference. "This is our first full week. Every week matters with us."

He and an associate said Jan. 3-16 was when work was diminished at the plant.

"We have a full crew here now," Brown continued.

That's a workforce of 27-28 people, he said.

"When we first came, we had a total of 45," Brown said, explaining his current crew has greater efficiency.

U.S. Tank's ability to work with a more efficient workforce also came after some of his previous staff "went across the street," Brown said, indicating some found work elsewhere.

U.S. Tank moved to Lewisburg from Florida where, according to Brown, welders are usually paid lower wages, unless they're employed by a large corporation.

"It was not hard for use to find welders," he said when told of vocational education available in and near Lewisburg.

Some people who sought higher wages elsewhere "could have had leadership positions" at U.S. Tank, had they stuck it out with his family company, Brown said.

During the conference, Brown said, "It's been a good move" from Florida to Lewisburg.

A representative from CKNA spoke up on a similar issue during the conference.

Front-line supervisors and leadership skills are needed at CKNA, according to the comment made during the open meeting at the community college campus.

That businessman also reported, "People don't know how to navigate through Microsoft Windows," the computer program for many personal computers used so commonly in American business, now. That's a skill that employees need, he said.

Work ethics such as loyalty to an employer were mentioned by some employers, although there was some awareness that workers who'd been loyal to Sanford Corp. are being laid off as that pencil factory in Lewisburg is being closed.

Wiles, the executive director of the JECDB, asked the various personnel directors to fill out forms asking what skills they need from employees. Various responses were announced during the conference.

"Math skills are poor," reported one employer's representative.

Marshall County Schools Director Stan Curtis replied to that, and several related issues, explaining a state program has imposed new requirements for high school diplomas preparing students for college. While Curtis has been a coach and supports athletic programs, he's also aware of the need to be sure graduates master the three R's.

"Reading comprehension" was another skill employers want, according to a business representative speaking up during a review of what they'd listed on Wiles' form.

A Farmington businessman with an injection molding plant said he felt young people are looking for work without skills at a lathe or a mill, so such vocational skills should be taught.

The Marshall County Workforce Improvement Conference at Columbia State Community College's Lewisburg campus was hosted by the Joint Economic and Community Development Board.

Wiles, the executive director, has an office on the ground floor of the Marshall County Courthouse Annex at the corner of First Avenue South and East Commerce Street on Lewisburg's public square.