Fall Creek

Our Fall Creek Falls Challenge – by Deborah Levine

Originally published in The Chattanooga Times Free Press

Your may think that the cost overrun for the Fall Creek inn is a state budget issue is just a dollars and cents issue. You’re probably annoyed that you’re paying for the extra $11 million with your tax dollars. Those overruns pushed the replacement cost from $29.4 to $40.4 million and pushed the completion date from 2020 to 2021. Was it an accident that increased the damage? Were mistakes made and now you’re stuck paying the bill to clean up the mess? The answer should get your attention, and keep it.

The extra costs are supposedly due partly to severe labor shortages. There was no problem contracting out the demolition of the inn. That was done on time and within budget. It’s the construction of a new inn that poses the problem. The contractor has problems getting local subcontractors in this sparsely populated area who can even submit proposals. Here’s where we should all pay attention, because the lack of qualified construction labor isn’t limited to rural outposts.

I discovered how Fall Creek isn’t a one-of-a-kind situation at a meeting of the Alliance for Innovation in Manufacturing Excellence meeting held at Wacker Academy on the Chattanooga State College campus. This National Welding Month event was truly eye opening. It turns out that we’re all facing a diminishing labor pool in vital trades needed for manufacturing and quality control of cars, airplanes, ships, and even personal products like wire-rimmed glasses. We rely everyday on welding skills, often combined with expertise in computers and robotics.

We need to expose students to robotics and welding at an increasingly younger age, according to the regional manufacturing presenters. My ears perked up with the statement that today’s young people often don’t know how to use a tape measure. It hadn’t occurred to me that a tape measure would be an exotic item to youngsters more familiar with computers and cell phones. Fortunately, these manufacturers have education and mentoring projects underway that include summer camps, academies, training courses, facility tours, and multiple trips to schools to speak and show engaging videos.

Despite these efforts, industries are predicting a shortage of these professionals of almost a half million professionals by 2020. But the skills gap isn’t only impacting manufacturing. The US Department of Labor forecasts that jobs in trades associated with construction and rebuilding our roads, bridges, and power grids are expected to grow by double-digit percentages, a faster pace than our overall economy, and faster than we can create the professionals needed.

These are well paying jobs and you’d think that young people would embrace the opportunities to train for them. But students often lack role models, guides, or mentors to expose them to the possibilities. The Vice Chair of the American Welding Society’s local chapter reports that every year, that organization offers five scholarships to high school students, but only two or three are awarded because students don’t apply. Those scholarships helped her pay for her higher education and training and they could help others do the same. She encouraged young women to follow her path because only 5% of welding professionals and industries want a diverse workforce and are actively seeking to hire more women.

Maybe it’s women who will rescue our buildings and infrastructure, and the Fall Creek inn. Remember Rosie the Riveter? She was the symbol of trailblazing women who helped manufacture the planes and ships that won World War II. I heard a great suggestion for a new version of Rosie at this celebration: Wendy the Welder. Young ladies… your country needs you!


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