Jobs chief urges Tennesseans to embrace tech revolution

Jobs chief urges Tennesseans to embrace tech revolution
(Source: WMC Action News 5)
(Source: WMC Action News 5)
(Source: WMC Action News 5)
(Source: WMC Action News 5)

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Burns Phillips, Tennessee Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development, spoke at Memphis Rotary Club this week.

"Technology is changing the world every single day at warp speed," Phillips said. "We have about a half million people in Tennessee who don't even have a high school diploma. And today with things moving as rapidly as they are in technology --- technology has changed the very nature of work itself. If you don't have a minimum high school diploma, you're really going to be left behind."

Memphis and Shelby County are home to 100,000 Tennesseans who lack a high school diploma or GED.

"I've read 58 books in the last twelve months about technology and read several hundred articles and research papers and so has my staff," Phillips said. "What I can say is: everybody's life in the workplace and skill sets are going to change. And they're going to change rapidly. The good part of that is a lot more jobs: a lot of good jobs."

But the Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner warned that those who are unprepared will miss the waves of opportunity ahead.

Phillips is an attorney and entrepreneur who joined the state after building his own businesses for decades.

His department operates 25 comprehensive job centers statewide and 53 affiliates across the state where Tennesseans can receive help and guidance in obtaining the skill sets they need.

Phillips said it costs the state $47 per person to serve Tennessee clients who show up at job centers in person but only $7 per client for those who obtain services online from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

"We've been able to be a much more efficient operation; we've worked very hard to eliminate paperwork," Phillips said.

He said he and his team visit Tennessee businesses to ask how they're preparing for the rapid technological tidal waves of the future.

"Computer power is doubling every eighteen months so everything we do has to be responsive to that," Phillips said. "Businesses are going to have to make sure they do training and give employees an opportunity to update jobs skills."

The Commissioner said he visited a Tennessee manufacturer that's number 2 globally in building a part for combustion engines.

Phillips said he asked the part maker what they were doing to prepare for technology changing their business model.

"As long as there are combustion engines, we're good," the executive told Phillips.

"But then hung their heads saying, 'Then, there's Tesla. Right now we think we have eight years,'" Phillips said.

Tesla makes premium electric sedans and SUVs with no need for the parts now made by the Tennessee manufacturer.

Phillips said he also visited a 1.9 million square foot Tennessee business that's operated almost entirely by robotics. The square footage of the factory equals 31 football fields. The firm employs only 134 people over three shifts.

Phillips said the executives giving him the tour of the massive facility were deeply proud their product goes untouched by human hands.

"At the end of the line, one guy slaps a sticker on the product," Phillips said, emphasizing the new realities facing the manufacturing job seekers of the future: fewer people and more robots. "State policymakers, business leaders and educators are all going to have to prepare for how technology is going to change everything we do."

One audience member offered a concern to the Labor Commissioner about filling the thousands of jobs now open in Memphis and Shelby County.

The Rotary guest said a local construction company was trying to hire 25 workers paying $20 an hour but after taking 200 applications, only 10 candidates were willing or able to pass the drug screen for marijuana.

"It is the elephant in the room. It is a huge problem," Phillips said.

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