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    Guest column: Training partnership is a work force

    Pauline Vernon - The Commercial Appeal -

    A trained and qualified workforce is one of the foundations for a community's economic growth. Memphis is often given low marks in this area, but as a result of visionary leadership within both the public and private sectors, we are now creating a strong workforce for today and a legacy of innovation for tomorrow.

    I was recently privileged to lead a program that I believe is one of those defining moments in building Memphis' workforce foundation.

    Memphis Bioworks Foundation received a $2.9 million grant from the Department of Labor at the beginning of 2010 to provide occupational training in various types of "green" jobs in a 26-county region. The grant established the Southern Energy Training Consortium, led by Memphis Bioworks Foundation with training providers including Southwest Tennessee Community College, Jackson State Community College, Mid-South Community College in West Memphis, Dyersburg State Community College, Seedco and the National Electrical Contractors Association. The final reports to the Department of Labor were filed in October, and the results are quite impressive, with every target exceeded.

    Through the program, more people completed training than the grant goal (405 versus a goal of 314), more received credentials (269 versus 179), more entered employment (258 versus 247) and more retained employment (214 versus 192). It is rare that a program of this type surpasses goals to this extent, and the fact that this program took place in the teeth of a recession makes the employment numbers even more impressive.

    Some of the program's participants have even chosen to seek more training and education in the form of an advanced degree, thus increasing the Mid-South's pool of skilled, trained workers, which is a major draw for employers.

    The story of the success of the grant is not just in the numbers; it's also a story about what the grant will leave behind. Almost half of the individuals served, 46.1 percent, were unemployed at the beginning of training, with 60 percent of those individuals identified as dislocated workers. Fifty-one percent were ethnic minorities. The new and renewed opportunities for these individuals will last a lifetime.

    This grant's legacy doesn't end with the people trained. Through the program, permanent training capacity has been increased within each of the training providers. They have created new programs and updated curriculums to reflect the demand for jobs related to energy efficiency and renewable energy. Training providers received funding for supplies and equipment, from iPads to a full-scale model weatherization training house, which will support the needs of new students for years to come.

    The programs now in place include such specialty areas as Architectural and Construction Fundamentals, Industrial Computer Fundamentals, Mechanical and Manufacturing CAD, Chemical Plant Operations and Processes, Solar Panel Installation, Agriculture Applications and Solar Photovoltaic Systems Installation; all of which have relevance for today's jobs and tomorrow's.

    A final accomplishment is less tangible, but just as important. The model used in this grant was unique in the country. Typically, a community college involved in training is the lead grant recipient, with fellow trainers and educational institutions following. This structure can hamper the lead training organization's ability to focus on its own training strengths, because it is also dealing with external oversight and administrative issues. The full potential of the grant is therefore diminished. In the case of this grant, Memphis Bioworks Foundation was able to act as a neutral leader, managing administrative issues and realigning funds to best meet the changing programmatic challenges, thereby maximizing all partners' outcomes.

    This kind of support, administration and management allowed everybody to be a success, fostering an environment of greater partnership across all of the training providers in the Southern Energy Training Consortium, as well as with other employer, government and post-secondary partners. Those bonds will last for many years to come.

    In a metro area with a historically low percentage of citizens with postsecondary education, the long-term impact of the Southern Energy Training Consortium grant is particularly important. The path to success through education and training has been demonstrated for hundreds today, and for thousands who can follow their examples.

    Memphis' role in the new, greener, technology-based economy depends on having a ready and capable workforce. Thanks to the accomplishments of this grant, employers currently in Memphis and those looking for an area to expand have more to build on here than they ever had before.

    Pauline Vernon is director of workforce development for Memphis Bioworks Foundation.