Chattanooga boasted an unemployment rate of less than 3% before COVID-19 hit. But the Scenic City was not spared from the pandemic’s crippling effects on the economy.
“Any community would have loved to have that low level of unemployment,” explained Greg Harwood, director of Chattanooga’s Workforce Development Office. But it’s a “different landscape now.”
“We have a very large population of people within our city, within our region, who are officially unemployed. So there’s a large talent pool of people out there who are looking for opportunities.”
Opening those opportunities is the goal of the Manufacturing Excellence program, a partnership between the Workforce Development Office and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Center for Professional Education and Department of Engineering.
The program creates a pipeline of talent for one of Chattanooga’s leading industries, bridging the gap between jobseekers and manufacturing jobs. The 30-hour, week-long program focuses on hard and soft skills needed for jobs in Chattanooga and is free for participants.
Areas covered include math, problem-solving and critical thinking. Participants learn more about local manufacturing companies and are introduced to machinery in UTC engineering labs.
“We have a lot of industrial-grade machinery and technology that they [participants] are going to see when they get a job in manufacturing,” explained Ahad Nasab, head of the engineering department at UTC. “The machinery may be a different size or shape, but it’s the same kind of machines.”
“We wanted participants to hear the vocabulary, to see the terms, so that if someone asks if they know how to lock or tag a system so that it’s safe to work on, they can say, ‘Yes, I know what that means.’”
The first session in September also emphasized communication and time management while the final day focused on improving interview skills and best practices for creating a resume and filling out job applications.
Center for Professional Education Director John Freeze said these confidence-building practices ended the program on a sweet note.
“They [participants] all took turns going through the mock interviews and they all took turns giving each other feedback on how well they did,” Freeze explained.
“It really helped people get more comfortable. We had one young lady go through the program and she was very honest with us. She said, ‘I would have never really felt like I had the confidence to go do this without having gone through this program, and in particular, that interview prep session.’”
No More ‘Blind Dates’
After participating in the Manufacturing Excellence program, attendees have a clearer idea of the job they’re applying for, and hiring companies know applicants are dedicated, Nasab said.
“This is like going into a relationship with a background of each side. It’s not a totally blind date. This way employers know what these people have gone through, and the participants know what they are getting into and what to expect,” he said.
Program participants are brought in from the city’s Workforce Development program, which helps local residents find jobs by connecting them with vital resources such as employment assistance, skills training and education. It focuses on the six leading industries in the area: manufacturing, health care, hospitality, logistics, skills trades/construction and information technology.
Teaming up with UTC to create the Manufacturing Excellence program was a natural fit, according to Harwood.
“One of the most valuable parts that I knew early on that we would have to include is our service partners,” he said. “One of those service partners would be someone who could actually deliver career-readiness experiences and career preparation experiences with highly qualified, highly credentialed instructors in a professional way and, obviously, UTC checks all of those boxes. I could not be more pleased with the relationship we have with UTC.”
Nasab said the appreciation goes both ways.
“Without this we would not have this close relationship with the mayor’s office, for example,” he said. “The city is relying on us and we are looking at them as a connection. This is a sincere community service for all of us. I hope that it will grow and become a positive force in the community.”
“I think this is a great thing that is happening.”