Region Desperately Needs More Educated Workers

February 21, 2006

The very good news that Eastman Chemical Co. is prepared to replace 2,000 employees over the next four years carries an important caveat: Brian Ferguson, Eastman's chairman and chief executive officer, made it clear that the workers his company is looking for need more than just a high school diploma. Indeed, said Ferguson, at a minimum, a successful job applicant will need at least a two-year degree in order to be considered.

Eastman's need for increasingly skilled employees isn't an aberration, but merely part of a global trend. In fact, there aren't enough skilled workers now to meet current demand. And in Tennessee, as across America, that gap is not only growing, but about to explode. Tens of millions of baby boomers are approaching retirement, and few qualified younger workers are out there these days to reliably replace them. The reason is evident, but not easily remedied.

On a national basis, K-12 educational systems often leave graduates ill-equipped for college, much less well paying careers. At the same time, the number of American students earning degrees in technical fields is declining. What's needed is better education and training. Even during the recent post-9/11 recession, American employers were spending an estimated $60 billion a year in education and training programs, much of which resulted from the failure of our educational systems.

Locally, programs like Educate and Grow, which provides two years of free tuition at Northeast State Tech to qualified high school graduates in Sullivan County, as well as Kingsport's RCAT have and will continue to help close the gap between ability and opportunity. But the final responsibility for improving education must begin, well, at the beginning.

Locally, that means greater involvement and encouragement from parents, teachers and educators. Statewide, that means the Tennessee Legislature must make both K-12 and higher education a funding priority. One of the chief reasons new-job creation continues to lag in this state is directly traceable to the low skill sets of far too many in Tennessee's workforce.

The 21st century battle for economic opportunity is going to hinge on educational preparedness, particularly in technological fields. All the job opportunities in the world won't help our region if its workforce is ill prepared for it. In our metropolitan statistical area, there are more people, 25 years and older, who are high school dropouts than are college graduates. That's simply got to change - and soon. Public investments in higher education and a commitment to high-tech literacy are the keys to the kind of sustained economic development we need to survive and thrive in an increasingly competitive world.

Copyright 2006 Kingsport Times-News.

The above runs totally counter to the facts. Employers here refuse to hire college graduates. Typical are these letters in the Kingsport Times-News March 24, 2006,

Couldn't get a job in Tri-Cities

As a student in the Hawkins County school system, I listened to the engineers from Eastman talk about the opportunities available to those with the right education. I graduated as the valedictorian of my high school class with honors and went on to graduate from Tennessee Tech University with bachelor's degrees in both chemical engineering and chemistry. Upon graduation, I had a 3.4 GPA and almost two years of co-op experience in the chemical industry.

So, in 2004/2005 when I was seeking employment back home, I felt good about my chances. Eastman, BAE, and NFS all had entry-level openings. To my surprise, I was not offered a single interview. How can a company know about your work ethic, skills, and drive if they won't even give you a chance?

Several of my friends from college had been trying to come back home to start their careers, but most faced the same fate. For several years before my graduation, none of the local companies came to Tech's campus to recruit any of the homegrown talent that was there. I understand that Eastman is finally going back there to recruit, but that is too little, too late for so many of us. What kind of example does that set for the next generation?

If someone wanted to pursue an engineering or science degree and work in the area, why would they follow that path when they know of so many who did and were denied their dreams?

In spite of it all, I am very blessed. In my current job, I get to work on the rocket motors for the current and future space exploration vehicles. It's just a shame I had to go 2,000 miles from home to find a company that appreciates my knowledge and skills.

Heather Rhoton, Ogden, Utah

Area's brain trust outsourced

March 28, 2006

After reading all of the articles stating there is such a need for educated individuals to fill the job market in Eastern Tennessee, I too, had to laugh. After graduating from East Tennessee State University with a high grade point average, spending one year co-oping at Eastman Chemical Company and specializing in the field that I am now enjoying great success in, I had to move 650 miles away to North Carolina to find employment.

Most of the people I graduated with that went on to college have also moved out of state to find decent paying jobs in their field of study. The problem was and still is that those in power to employ look to out-of-state universities instead of in-state, thinking that those institutions are teaching better skill sets. The other problem is for decades, the companies promoted from within individuals without the education, skill level, or competencies necessary for certain jobs just because the individual had seniority. I saw this firsthand when I applied time and time again for positions at a major manufacturing company.

Now they are reaping the benefits of what was sown for so many years. Like the other person in Utah, I am now a happy North Carolinian working for a community college teaching young people. It is a shame that the brain trust of the area has been outsourced to other states that now enjoy educated and skilled workers.

Deborah S. Clark Greenville, N.C.

Poor work ethic not the real issue

Printed Kingsport Times-News April 9, 2006

I commend Heather Rhoton (3/24) and Deborah Clark (3/28) as examples of the many qualified workers we have in Tri-Cities, yet their fate is all too common. I also laughed at the editorial about the need for high-tech workers. I was furious with the misguided editorial "Strong Work Ethic Sadly Lacking in Region" (Nov. 6). What is wrong with this picture?

Is that why Heather and Deborah had to flee Tri-Cities? Why is our lazy, shiftless workforce highly sought elsewhere? Eastman CEO Ferguson has whined about high-tech workers since he got here, yet he isn't hiring. I checked, and there are no jobs listed for Kingsport, but it did announce a new plant in China.

As the Tarnoff report clearly stated, local business refuses to pay better wages to get the people they need. CEO Ferguson has a big problem paying less money and benefits in a social culture that holds education and achievement in contempt. As I was informed by one local business, college graduates don't mix into the local workforce, so "we don't hire people with college." The problem isn't work ethic or education, it's a cultural problem of social apartheid combined with an abusive, low-wage employment system that's driven thousands of qualified people to leave the area.

This leaves too many unqualified people not only illiterate, but often into drug and alcohol abuse. Their children are often unmotivated as well. Unless local culture changes, let's just ship Eastman Chemical to China and get it over with.

Lewis Loflin
Bristol, Va.

Quoting a Sullivan County official, he confirmed again what most in power here will not address: "I was in no way casting dispersions on the level of education at ETSU. When I said that "we have ETSU students flipping burgers," I was pointing out that we do not have the level of jobs in this area to sustain the number of graduates from our local colleges. Therefore, they are forced to either leave the area or take what jobs are available to them, which in most cases are in the service area," The trouble is there are no decent jobs even in trades as the Tarnoff report revealed. See: