Memphis Workforce Development Study Aims for Focus

The Memphis Regional Chamber should be commended for taking the lead on the recently presented “Comprehensive Regional Workforce Analysis: Workforce Development & Transition Strategies and Economic Targets” report. The goals of the study were strong, and the information presented gives an excellent snapshot of where we are as a community and where we need to focus. From the perspective of the Memphis Bioworks™ initiative, several things stand out.

We, like many communities, tend to try to over compartmentalize areas of business potential and emphasis. It is easy to look at the Memphis economy and see a myriad of different business sectors in the bio fields. There is bioscience (including the field of health care), biologistics, bio-agriculture, bio-fuels and bio-devices. Each, on the surface, looks like a distinct field with distinct needs. I would argue that when it comes to workforce development and preparing our community for an economy that is heavily bio focused, we must resist the temptation to compartmentalize. As a bio-business community, we must build a workforce prepared for any of our individual needs.

We don’t need individual workforce programs satisfying narrow goals, we need a community-wide agenda that everyone in the various bio sectors can benefit from. I believe the education foundations and the skills for careers in the bio areas – any of the bio areas – share enough critical components to be accomplished together. Math, science, and engineering are critical to all of us, so we need not have separate initiatives for each bio segment.

At the same time, we also can err in the other direction. Workforce initiatives must be sector based or they risk becoming too global to be effective. If we approach our workforce needs in Memphis as one large pool of talent that needs to be broadly prepared for every potential business, we will spend years developing local workforce organizations with plans too broad to be actionable or effective.

I agree with the study’s recommendation that the bio sector needs a business champion to draw all of the bio organizations together. Each major business sector needs the same. Sectors should talk to make sure resources are used wisely, but remain focused on individual sector business needs to insure we have goals that can be accomplished.

One area from the Chamber presentation on workforce was particularly enlightening and encouraging. It showed that Memphis has a huge hidden potential workforce. Nearly 200,000 people are underemployed, more than 300,000 people are not employed but want to work, and there are more than 14,000 recent college graduates. The study went on to show that nearly 60 percent of the potential workforce (employed and unemployed) want to upgrade their skills. Those of us in the business and education communities should find these statistics to be a personal challenge. If only half of the individuals are serious about upgrading their skills, it is still nearly half a million individuals raising their hands to tell us they want more. Our potential bio workforce is there if we only heed their request.

The next challenge is developing our leadership. We need to do a better job matching the needs of college graduates to local industry needs. For example, a typical MBA program anywhere in the country teaches accounting, marketing, finance, human resources and basic problem solving. Given our foundation in medical devices, clinical research, agriculture and logistics in Memphis, shouldn’t our MBA programs be different? Wouldn’t it make more sense and be of greater value if our local MBA programs focused on something like Global Medical Logistics, Global Bioscience Management or Agri-bio Business Management? This kind of thinking would not only create the talent our businesses need, but would make our schools more competitive in attracting talent.

The Memphis Chamber has given all of us some valuable information about our workforce. It is now up to the business community, in partnership with education, to use that knowledge to prepare for our business future. Let’s not spend our time building more broad committees and studies. Instead, let’s focus, work together where working together makes sense, and build an environment that prepares our workforce for the jobs in our community.

Opinions expressed by Steven J. Bares, Ph.D., President and Executive Director of the Memphis Bioworks™ Foundation.


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