Quality of State’s Workforce Questioned

One of the messages that came out of Gov. Bill Haslam’s education summit last week was a complaint from employers that’s not entirely new: It’s hard to find good help these days.

Amid discussion about the state’s education system, a few attendees said issues preventing a labor-ready workforce ran a little deeper than what the reforms of the past few years have been getting at. In a nutshell, there’s a significant element of Volunteer State’s workforce, especially at the entry levels, that can’t do basic high school math, don’t communicate or take directions very well, have trouble passing drug tests and oftentimes exhibit a general aversion to hard work.

Greg Martz, a Tennessee Chamber of Commerce board member and plant manager at DuPont, said the problems facing employers are fairly straightforward. The younger generation, in particular, lacks “interpersonal skills,” which he in part blames on their overuse of texting and other modern phone technology. And they also tend to have trouble solving real-world problems, which he theorized might have something to do with an overemphasis in public-school classrooms on rote memorization rather than critical thinking.

Ken Gough of Accurate Machine Products in Johnson City agreed.

“Math skills are very weak, analytical skills are very weak, the ability to solve problems, very weak. Drug testing? It’s a real problem with the entire workforce,” said Gough, a voice for Tennessee’s small business community at the governor’s “Progress of the Past Present an Future” conference. “Just the understanding that they have to show up every day for work, on time and ready to go to work, those are things that quite literally have to be taught.”

He added that while some of these problems are “not primarily a school problem,” schools could help provide solutions.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, said he’s heard it all before. A year ago, Gardenhire told the crowd of conference attendees, he made inquiries among representatives of Japanese-owned companies doing business in the Southeast as to what could be done to encourage the hiring of more Tennesseans.

While he had expected to hear issues with infrastructure and taxes, Gardenhire said it came to a “unanimous three things” that weren’t those at all.

“Number 1 was your workforce can’t do ninth grade math. Second, your workforce can’t pass drug tests. And third, your workforce won’t work. They don’t have a work ethic,” Gardenhire said he was told.

Gardenhire said all those are components of what he’s telling kids around Chattanooga when he goes on local motivational-speaking tours. He said he informs students that what they need to do to achieve success in life is “learn math, stay off drugs and show up on time for work.”

The invitation-only education forum was called by Haslam and the Republican speakers of the General Assembly, and featured several presentations on the reforms enacted over the past several years and discussion of the state’s education system by all of the major stakeholders in education, including lawmakers, teachers, administrators, parents and business leaders.

Haslam said that the plan was not to come out with some statement from the group at the summit, but that this was just the “beginning of a discussion” about what issues face Tennessee, how we got to where we are and what some “potential paths” are for the future of the state’s education system.

During one of the summit’s discussion periods, Randy Boyd, chairman of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, emphasized the need to focus on “talking about K to J, not K to 12,” in order to “be at the point where high school graduation equals college readiness.”

“Our alignment needs to be aligned with the workforce needs, not necessarily with anything else,” Boyd said.