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When Manufacturing Leaves, Workers Take Up Trucking

Mon, 08/23/2010 - 4:35am
Dave Flessner, Associated Press Writer

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — After 25 years with General Motors, Renee Pipkins lost her job as an automotive engineer in Michigan last year and decided to hit the road literally.

She and her husband, a retired GM millwright, are taking on new careers as truck drivers, where they see more job security.

"I knew there were lots of driving jobs available so my husband and I decided to move south and take up team driving with U.S. Xpress," said Pipkins, 49. "Being unemployed for several months, I wanted a job that was going to be around until we retire."

Despite double-digit unemployment across much of Tennessee and Georgia, a new study of jobs in the 30-county Chattanooga region finds that truck driving is among the growing occupations.

The $300,000 study for the Tri-State Regional Workforce Alliance says that truck-driving jobs already are the single biggest occupation in Hamilton County and one of the biggest in the region. In the next decade, the number of truck-driving jobs is estimated to grow from 17,647 to 18,821.

Many drivers will be new or replacement workers like Pipkins, who last week was completing more than six months of training and orientation.

Being mobile, flexible and willing to be retrained is key for people and communities to adjust to changing economic trends, the study's author says.

"As the economy evolves and industry innovates, the region must invest in upgrading the job skills of its work force especially the least educated and skilled to meet new industry standards," said Domenico "Mimmo" Parisi, director of the National Strategic Planning & Analysis Research Center at Mississippi State University.

The jobs forecast for the region in the next decade shows a mixture of skills, however. Some of the fastest-growing job areas don't necessarily require advanced education or specialized training, including many in the leisure, hospitality and service industries.

The fastest-growing single category housekeeping and maid service "is something you pretty much learn on the job," said Andrea Anderson, general manager of the downtown Courtyard by Marriott and president of the Chattanooga Hospitality Association.

The number of housekeeping jobs in the region is projected to grow by one-third, or nearly 5,100, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Anderson said her hotel typically gets 20 to 30 applicants a week for housekeeping positions, even though the job averages the lowest hourly pay $7.41 among the region's 10 fastest-growing jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Anderson said many hotel managers have worked their way up from entry desk and housekeeping jobs.

The next-fastest-growing job in the region registered nurses pays more than three times what a maid earns. The demand for RNs is projected to grow by one-third over the decade.

"We are seeing less turnover among our nurses in the current economy and we're blessed in Chattanooga to have a number of area nursing schools," said Lynn Whisman, senior vice president and chief nursing executive at Erlanger hospital, which employs more than 1,100 registered nurses.

"But in the next decade, there will be an exodus of older nurses retiring who will have to be replaced. An aging population also will continue to create more demand for nurses."

There are nursing programs at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Chattanooga State Community College, Cleveland State Community College, Southern Adventist University and Dalton State College.

The health services industry is projected to have the fastest growth rate, adding 24,430 jobs, or nearly 33 percent more workers, according to government projections. Most of those jobs require specialized training or certification.

Other major growing industry categories will include finance and insurance, up by 23,990 jobs in the region; and professional and business services such as engineering and accounting, up by 23,614 jobs, the Mississippi State study forecasts. Most of those jobs also will require education beyond high school.

The overall hospitality and leisure industry is projected to grow by 14,358 jobs, or 22 percent.

The Chattanooga region, like most of America, has a gap between employers' needs and workers' job skills, especially those without some college or technical training.

"In a knowledge-based economy we have to look at increasing worker skills," said Stephen Dunn, regional projects manager for the Southeast Tennessee Development District, one of the members of the Tri-State Regional Workforce Alliance. "Career technical centers will be crucial to keep improving the job skills of the work force."

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