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Importance of immigrant, Gen Z workers cited at Chattanooga-area manufacturing forum

Original article written by Mike Pare and posted in the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reposted with permission from author. Contact Mike Pare at Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

Staff photo by Mike Pare / Economic development and other experts spoke at a manufacturing symposium Friday in Cleveland, Tenn. From left are Bryan Farlow, client development manager at Terracon; Doug Berry, vice president of economic development at the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce; Charles Wood, vice president of economic and talent development at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce; Mark Smith, a corporate, regulatory and government relations attorney at Miller & Martin; and Scott Cooper, an economic development consultant at TVA.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Chattanooga-area economic experts on Friday cited ways to meet nagging workforce issues, with ideas ranging from more immigration to tailoring job environments for Generation Z employees.

Doug Berry, the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce's vice president of economic development, said the nation needs to reopen doors when it comes to attracting talented workers via immigration.

"We're going to have to open up our hearts and minds a little bit," he told a room of area business people at a manufacturing symposium.

Charles Wood, vice president of economic and talent development for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said if companies today are just posting job openings, they're using "a losing strategy."

"If we really want to be successful, we need the best and brightest now no matter where they're from," he said.

Both economic developers cited innovative workforce offerings from Cleveland and Chattanooga during the eighth-annual Peak Performance Symposium hosted by the Smart Factory Institute of Tennessee.

Berry said the new Bradley County Partnerships in Industry and Education (PIE) Innovation Center, where the symposium was held, is one way Cleveland is responding to workforce issues. Some 150 high school students are coming to the PIE Center for half of each school day to be trained and work in a variety of technical and medical careers in programs designed by local industry leaders.

After seven years of planning, fundraising and construction, the renovated factory should have about 600 students training there when the facility is all built out, officials have said. In Chattanooga, an abandoned elementary school in Avondale has been retrofitted to help train needed construction workers, said Wood, who was chosen this week to serve as interim CEO of the Chattanooga chamber amid a search for a successor to outgoing President Christy Gillenwater. She is leaving Chattanooga at the end of the year to become CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.

The Construction Career Center is located at the refurbished and equipped former Mary Ann Garber Elementary School on Roanoke Avenue.

Terri Cassem, the human resources director at polysilicon producer Wacker in Bradley County, said workers who make up Gen Z, people born in the late 1990s to early 2010s, will comprise half of the workforce in three years.

She said 96% of the Gen Z group have smartphones. "They're tech savvy but corporately naive," Cassem said.

Blake Markham, human resources director for tire maker Nokian Tyres in North America, said Gen Z employees are looking for principles at work.

"They're looking for more than just a job," he said at the symposium.

Trever Ehrlich, creative solutions manager at logistics company Kenco Group, said Gen Z workers like flexibility in their work schedules.

"The workforce has different demands than two years ago, so we have to go with it," he said. Chris Cunningham, a UC Foundation professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who also serves as director of its Industrial and Organizational Psychology Graduate Program, said the idea is "meeting people where they are."

He said that companies investing in good onboarding efforts, mentoring and training will help workers stay and establish careers.

Denise Rice, president and CEO of workforce training firm Peak Performance, said the symposium is "one of its most popular events for manufacturers, by manufacturers."

"Local, regional and even national leaders come together every year to share best practices on implementing new technology, expanding sales abroad and matching technology innovations with the right skills and credentials," she said in a statement.

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