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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.

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Press Releases

Haslam Announces Higher Ed Board Appointments

Press release from the Office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; August 13, 2013:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced the appointments of eight new members and five re-appointments to Tennessee’s higher education boards as well as the selection of the chair of Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) and vice chair of the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR).

Robert Fisher, Pam Koban and Keith Wilson will serve on THEC. Brad Lampley, Bonnie Lynch, Sharon Pryse and Thaddeus Wilson will serve as new members of the University of Tennessee (UT) Board of Trustees. Deanna Wallace will join TBR as a new member. Cato Johnson was elected chair of THEC, and Emily Reynolds was elected vice-chair of TBR.

“I want to thank the new and current members for serving and the important work they do,” Haslam said. “We’re focused on strengthening higher education in Tennessee, and I look forward to working with everyone involved in tackling the iron triangle of affordability, accessibility and quality.”

Fisher is a 2011 graduate of Rossview High School. He is a junior studying political science at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga (UTC), where he is a member of the Brock Scholars Program. He currently serves in the student government association as the student body president. Fisher, a Clarksville native, will serve as the student representative on THEC.

Koban has served in faculty and administrative roles in both the UT and TBR systems. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee Knoxville and her master’s degree from the Fogelman School of Business at the University of Memphis. She serves on the board of trustees for Montgomery Bell Academy and has served as chairman of the board of directors for the Martha O’Bryan Community Center. She will represent the fifth congressional district on THEC.

Keith Wilson is the publisher of the Kingsport Times-News and president of the Northeast Tennessee Media Group, which includes the Kingsport Times-News, the Johnson City Press, the Herald and Tribune in Jonesborough, the Erwin Record and The Tomahawk in Mountain City. He serves as a member of the Kingsport Higher Education Advisory Board. In 2012, he was presented the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce. He will represent the first congressional district on THEC.

Lampley serves as partner in charge of the Nashville office of Adams and Reese. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee Knoxville and earned his juris doctorate from the University of Tennessee College of Law. He played offensive line at UT and was named to the Southeastern Conference’s All-Academic Team three times. He recently completed a term as chair of the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. He will represent the seventh congressional district on the UT board.

Lynch is a 2016 M.D. candidate at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology from the University of Tennessee Knoxville. She represents the College of Medicine Class of 2016 as secretary. Lynch will represent students on the UT board.

Pryse is president and CEO of The Trust Company. She earned her bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Tennessee Knoxville. She currently serves on the board of directors of Leadership Knoxville and the YMCA of East Tennessee. She is a past chair of United Way of Greater Knoxville. She will represent the second congressional district on the UT board.

Thaddeus Wilson is an associate professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center where he joined the faculty in 2000. He is an associate professor of Radiology and Biomedical Engineering and Imaging and recently served as faculty senate president. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Christian Brothers University and earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He will serve as a faculty trustee on the UT board.

Wallace is a business systems technology instructor at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Nashville and serves as an online instructor and course developer for the Regents Online Degree Program. She earned a Bachelor of Business Administration and Master of Education from Austin Peay State University. She will serve as a faculty representative on TBR.

Johnson is the senior vice president of corporate affairs at Methodist Healthcare. He has served on THEC since 2008. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Memphis and is past president of the University of Memphis Alumni Association. In January, the University of Memphis awarded him the Arthur S. Holmon Lifetime Achievement Award.

Reynolds is the senior vice president of government relations for the Tennessee Valley Authority. She was originally appointed to TBR in 2010 and was re-appointed by Haslam in 2012 to serve a six year term. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Stephens College. She served as state director and chief of staff for U.S. Senator Bill Frist, and from 2003-2007 she served as the 31st secretary of the U.S. Senate.

Haslam also reappointed Danni Varlan and Ashley Humphrey to TBR, and Raja Jubran, Charles Anderson Jr. and George Cates to the UT board.