Engineers from regional corporations, agencies, universities, schools, and professional associations, came together to kick off Engineers Week 2017 at The Chattanoogan conference center. E-Week is designed to help the world understand what engineering is and how it impacts us at multiple levels: from cars to bridges, electric blankets to electrical grids, or farms to supermarkets. Whether chemical, electrical, mechanical, or civil, engineers shape our lives.
The attendees at the International Business Council (IBC) of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce were a diverse mix of nationalities, professions, expats, and industries. The annual meeting of the IBC, the Chamber’s newest council, attracted students, family members, colleagues, and executives. The diverse crowd illustrated the broad participation in Chattanooga’s national and international booming growth. (Photo by Suzanne Ocsai)
Tennessee is home to hundreds of international companies worth billions of dollars. Chattanooga, the smallest of Tennessee’s four major cities, is the site of the only Volkswagen plant in the United States. VW is not the only German company in our area, but its arrival a half dozen years ago made cultural competence a high priority. German companies orient their executives to Southern culture, energizing Chattanooga’s globalization and investment in cross-cultural training.
The transformation of the South by international industry has picked up speed. In 1974, there were only 19 foreign-owned manufacturers in Tennessee. They were valued at $649 million. In 1995, the state had 400 foreign-owned firms with a value of $15 billion. By 2013, the number of foreign-owned firms had more than doubled to 864 with a value of $30 billion. According to the Global Location Trends Report by the IBM Institute, Tennessee led the nation in jobs created by foreign owned firms.
Five years ago, there was no International Business Council (IBC) of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Chattanooga. Today, IBC Past President Anjelika Riano, current President Anton Demenchuk, both immigrants from the Ukraine, and President-Elect Marty Lester took turns informing, amusing, and congratulating the multi-lingual audience on the transformation. The family-like atmosphere was continued by the Chamber’s Vice President of Economic Development, Charles Wood, who shared how he enjoyed bringing companies to town for the shock value. “For a community of our size, it’s very surprising and very metropolitan.”
As for the future, almost weekly there are announcements in The Chattanooga Times Free Press of companies planning to relocate to the area or expand existing factories and services. Wood reported that a billion dollars worth of projects are in the pipeline to Chattanooga, half of that coming from international companies. He praised Hamilton County and the City of Chattanooga for making the transformation possible, and thanked the event sponsors: Chattanooga Coca Cola and Bryan College.
The Chamber’s VP of Public Policy, Rob Bradham, introduced the topic, What International Companies Expect from Chattanooga’s Workforce. He also introduced the panel of HR executives from global companies with plants in the Chattanooga area.
Sebastian Patta from automobile manufacturer Volkswagen.
Dr. Erika Burk from polysilicon manufacturer Wacker.
Joe Fuqua from construction manufacturer Komatsu.
Tony Cates from automobile parts manufacturer Gestamp.
The panelists’ friendly competition was entertaining and light hearted, but they were serious about recruiting and training of a local workforce. Describing the uphill battle, Cates said, “Good folks are hard to find. I talk to groups helping people get jobs. I go into churches, talk to schools and teachers, explain the skill set the need. We bring the kids in for tours and develop partnerships, but it’s going to be tough…”
To encourage and educate promising Chattanoogans, the companies provide internships, apprenticeships, plant tours, and partnerships with schools and colleges. They anticipated the lack of high-tech skills. They did not expect either the substantial number failing drug tests of the lack of education basics. Burk explained that Wacker made a $3 million investment to develop a college program to meet the company’s needs. “It was surprising that early applicants couldn’t pass the reading and math literacy test. Remedial courses were necessary.”
Dedication should match the technical skills. Cates explained, “The best strategy is to find good people and train them up. We started internships with high school students, but how do you get kids to commit and have the patience to get degrees?” He added, “Program a robot and Gestamp will hire you.” Patta shared his perspective, “They have to stay for a 10-hour shift, be there on time, and follow Volkswagen’s policies. High school graduates have no idea of what goes on. They need more practical workplace experience.”
The panelists concluded by asking for referrals of local candidates to intern in their international companies. While they currently import their most specialized engineers, especially for the Research and Development departments now located here, they’re open to local referrals at that level, too. The transformation of a small Southern city into a global village progresses.
The president of the Chattanooga area Chamber of Commerce opened the combination reception, celebration, and press conference at Chattanooga’s Hunter Museum on July 15, 2014. The online invitations had gone out only 24 hours earlier, but the room was packed with 800 people. It had been six years since I attended the announcement of the Volkswagen plant coming to Chattanooga in this room. This year was noteworthy because of the wrangling over union representation, politics, state funding, and various personality driven conflicts that would determine whether Volkswagen would build a second car here.