Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 4, 2017

Is your job going away?

Which fields are most at risk, why and what can be done about it

Chattanooha printer Cy DeVilbiss talks with Duell Hotel owner Seija Ojanpera about a welcome letter printed by WonderPress. - Photograph by Alex McMahan

How confident are you that your job will still exist in one year? How about five years? Ten years?

While much of the national attention has been on President Trump’s promise to restore some portion of the 22,000 coal jobs lost since 2001, 500,000 department store jobs have been lost during that same period, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.

Sears and Macy’s alone have cut more than 31,000 jobs so far this year – 9,000 more than the coal industry has lost in 16 years – as more buyers choose to shop online, shifting jobs largely to fulfillment warehouses.

In Tennessee, agriculture is expected to be the hardest-hit job sector in the next seven years, with 23 percent of current farm and ranch jobs going away, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts. The timber industry will lose 43 percent of its jobs in Tennessee.

Sales, textile workers, data entry and those involved in the travel industry will see significant job losses.

And no politicians on any level are pretending they can bring those jobs back.

So what can be done?

Local and state officials, educators and other business leaders spend much of their time trying to see into the future and determine what kind of jobs are going to be in demand and how they can best match their workforce with those needs.

“Facilitating workforce planning and what skills might be required in the future is something that has a lot of steps,” says Bill Kilbride, president and chief executive officer of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

“First, we survey our members, and then we look at the data that’s out there by city, MSA code and even ZIP code. From all that, we try to prove what the demand is today for different types of jobs, and then we drill down even further to see what skills we’re specifically talking about.”

Is retail dying? A mall Nashville department store clerk who’s been laid off would likely say yes.

A swamped counterpart at a Home Depot or Lowe’s in construction-heavy Nashville might disagree.

And then there’s the parsing of job sectors.

Are restaurant workers retail, for example? What defines full-time and part-time employment? And trends, such as artificial intelligence and automation have a part to play, too. If the robots are taking over, do we count the people who design and service the robots?

Adapt or disappear

Cy DeVilbiss, owner of WonderPress, a family-owned digital press shop at 824 N. Market Street in Chattanooga, had to make major changes during the Great Recession and afterward in order to stay afloat.

“The industry went through major changes concurrently,” DeVilbiss says. “First there was a change (from offset printing) to digital printing and file management. There was also a reduction in demand for printing because of what people could do personally with their own printers and other technologies.

“During the recession, there was a big shakedown,” DeVilbiss adds. “There were 40,000 printers before the recession and now there are 30,000. The pressures now are about adapting to technology and to the changing market.

DeVilbiss says many printers went out of business because of a reluctance to invest in new technology and equipment.

“It’s a big number, I can tell you that,” he says. “I’ve got as much money in equipment as I’ve got in annual sales. I probably have 70 percent in annual sales is in equipment investment. My biggest challenge is paying for equipment.

“A lot of the printers who went away are mom and pop printers,” DeVilbiss explains. “Their businesses were based on printing forms and general office needs. Now people do those jobs on their desktop printers.

“But big commercial printers got hit, too, because some companies began to put their catalogs online.”

From data to the workforce

To discover which jobs are needed, and which are not, and how to get people trained and moved to the county where the plant is being built is tricky.

That might mean exploring 15 different jobs, with 15 different sets of data points, and then sitting down with public school officials, university and community college leaders, and other stakeholders to talk about training.

Meetings also are held with city and county officials, and business leaders, to update them on training programs, and see what other needs they have for current and predicted hires.

Sometimes a specific need rises to the top, such as a current focus on high school-degree-plus workers, those who have finished high school and who may have received skill-based training, such as completing a certification program.

“In our area, those people are key to us right now for a couple of reasons,” Kilbride explains. “Our automotive sector, anchored by Volkswagen, is growing, and many of those second-tier suppliers are looking for those people.

“In this case, the ‘plus’ can be a certificate from a community college, a two-year degree or just a summer semester at a technical college in a program on how to operate a robot, or OSHA safety.”

Connecting those potential employees to the companies that hire them is a year-round job. The chamber’s goal, Kilbride says, is to constantly make sure that bridges, lines of communication, or whatever they need to be called, are not just open, but constantly busy, between all the parties involved in economic development. Now more than ever, that includes educational institutions from high school on up.

“If we sit down with an employer who’s telling us they need 50 people with a particular skill for a type of job they are going to have, then that information needs to make its way back to the schools,” he adds. “Not just so that training programs can be developed, but so that career counselors can talk to students about this need that’s opening up.

“Then that pipeline develops, and we look more like a symphony and less like an ‘oompah’ band.”

Willingness to adapt

Kilbride is also quick to point out that four-year schools must remain in the mix as well, even though their programs are more hard-baked than those at community colleges.

“Their product is the four-year degree, and as we go through economic cycles, types of work can be disrupted and new needs can arise,” Kilbride points out. “They see what the technical and two-year colleges are doing, and they are talking to their new admissions about skills they may be bringing along so those individuals can be steered to a specific type of degree. That way, whatever experience they have can be built upon for the future even as they are using it now.”

He points out that the state’s push toward secondary education and training via Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect goes a long way toward workforce readiness, regardless of the economic climate and shifts in specific employer needs. That, along with a desire to predict, vs. react, is standing the state and its economic-development partners in good stead.

“We got into the habit of asking people to define what the workforce is like,” Kilbride recalls. “They would never say that healthcare is our [Chattanooga’s] biggest employer, when in fact, the data says that is our largest industry. We have three large hospitals and many physician practices and support offices, so that shouldn’t have been a surprise.

“We have to become more nimble, and focus on the future of how work is done, and how the workforce will be assembled. Tennessee has a great opportunity with the assets it has assembled, or is assembling, to be pretty good at this.”

Heightened employer engagement in employment trends around economic development is vital for the state, but employees themselves also have a role to play, adds Dr. Bill Fox, director of the Boyd Center for Business & Economic Research at the Haslam College of Business, University of Tennessee.

“Fields like technology are moving ever-faster, and so ‘nimble’ is a good word,” Fox acknowledges. “The notion that ‘I’m going to do the same thing for my whole career’ is unlikely for the vast majority of employees anywhere now.

“Employers have to be prepared to transition with a rapidly changing world, and the flip side to that coin is that the workers do as well. They have to recognize the importance of being willing to transition and adapt themselves.”

In a state like Tennessee, with much more rural terrain than urban areas, such multilevel community engagement from both economic-development and higher education providers across the state will pay benefits for urban areas as well as the less populated counties that surround them, Fox adds.

“Programs like Tennessee Reconnect and the Labor Education Alignment Program, or LEAP, are very aggressive and needed,” he says. “Tennessee is committed to getting adults into further training, whether that’s a certification or two, or a two-year degree.

“LEAP in particular is more company and job-area specific, and that’s going to help employers and employees with the right training for the right place and the right time. These programs will help the state by building a better labor force that’s more ready for the future, and I give state leaders credit for developing them.”

And what to do when success means some gaudy numbers? Keep plugging away, Fox cautions. To wit: Tennessee made news in July by posting a jobless rate of 3.6, the state’s lowest in history according to officials. That dovetails with an economic growth that’s also a bit ahead of the nation’s, and creates another employment narrative, Fox points out.

“Generally speaking, employment growth rates here are faster than much of the United States, and in the Survey of Business [Owners and Self-Employed Persons] we consistently outpaced the national by several tenths of a point every month. That’s because we are growing at different speeds in different areas.

“Nashville, for example, is growing much faster than the rest of the state, but Chattanooga and Cleveland are right up there.”

But, he adds, “There’s no easy answer for the rural/urban divide. There are about 10 counties in the state that are larger and growing faster than the others in areas like income.

“Not all rural or smaller counties are doing badly; Bradley County is doing really well right now because of its proximity to Volkswagen.

“Economic development officials at the state level have to work to find something to assist each county regardless of the economic condition it’s in, and that can be hard.

“Many residents in those areas commute to the busier areas, for example, and creating jobs where they live would affect the workforce in the areas where they are now working.”

While consolidation of jobs to more populous areas can be a problem, DeVilbiss, a 27-year veteran of the graphic arts and printing industry, sees a bigger issue with fewer companies controlling a bigger share of the work.

“Consolation is a problem, but nobody seems to want to address it,” he says.

“What we need to do is stop that trend, but nobody is doing it; so I believe it’s just going to continue. The big companies just keep getting bigger will get bigger, and the little guy gets squashed.”

Linda Bryant contributed to this report.