Serious skilled labor gap plagues county

By Thomas Wilson

   Don't let the region's skills gap become a gulf was the advice given to city and county officials by a business management professor at East Tennessee State University Monday. Dr. Karen Tarnoff said long-term investment to build a skilled labor force should be a top priority to rebooting the local economy.
   "Right now, we can't recruit industries that pay a decent wage when we have a labor force that is unskilled," said Tarnoff during a presentation she gave to city and county officials at a roundtable meeting held for Elizabethton Chamber of Commerce members and the general public.
   "We are going to have to have a skilled labor force. We need more employees with high-tech types of skills."
   Tarnoff presented a detailed analysis covering the skills gap facing the labor forces of Carter County and other Northeast Tennessee counties.
   The College's Bureau of Economic Research and Analysis compiled information on economic trends and shifts for the Local Workforce Investment Area 1 -- identified as Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Washington and Unicoi counties.
   Tarnoff said the first area most major companies consider is labor force. Not necessarily numbers or willingness, she said, but skilled ability.
   "They know roads can be built and golf courses constructed," she told the group.
   Indicative of those needs was the top 10 industries projected growth employment through 2008. Health services, educational services, and chemical and allied products were three of the top five industries expected to be major industries.
   Heavy manufacturing continues to deteriorate with the state expecting to pick up only a 7 percent growth rate between 1998 and 2008, according to the Bureau's research. Tarnoff said that while the community shouldn't abandon manufacturing completely, the industry's decline must be taken into account when economic developers move to recruit new corporate citizens.
   "Manufacturing is slowing and dying," she said. "If we continue to do that, we are looking backward, not forward."
   She pointed to a U.S. Department of Labor report that forecasts another 1.3 million workers will be needed to fill new high-tech jobs over the next decade. Unless shortages are addressed, the U.S. economy could be short nearly 5 million workers by 2008, according to the Labor Department.
   She also pointed to discouraging numbers that correlate the state's funding of K-12 and higher education and quality of life. Tennessee ranks 45th nationally in the number of citizens who are high school graduates. The state's public school expenditures per capita come in dead last among the 50 states while expenditures per pupil ranks an anemic 42nd in the nation.
   The state ranks 10th in the country in the number of households receiving food stamps and 12th in percentage of population living below the poverty level.
   Sycamore Shoals Hospital CEO Scott Williams and First District Public Defender David Bautista also presented their results of a Chamber of Commerce survey. The survey ranked the community's strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats for future economic development.
   A sense of urgency to reinvigorate the local economy has city and county officials as well as the Elizabethton Chamber of Commerce actively seeking ways not to just recruit industry, but redefine the community's identity.
   Keith Young, director of Northeast State Technical Community College in Elizabethton, also explained the need for the community to invest in the "human capital". Young pointed to the economic development of Tupelo, Miss. -- a rural southern town once known primarily for Elvis and post-antebellum poverty.
   What was Tupelo's magic bullet? Young said the town's former cotton farmers and businessmen invested in a bull. Using artificial insemination -- the latest technological breakthrough in the 1950s -- the Tupelo collective created a dairy farm. "In 10 years, Tupelo was the dairy capital of the South," Young said. "We need to find our economic bull."