The Lebanon Wilson County Chamber of Commerce is looking to bridge the gap between employers and job seekers through the new Wilson Works program.
Adina Chumley, a former spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development, has been hired on to direct the program. She led a number of similar initiatives across 15 counties while at the state and also has experience in human resources.
“You have all these great training programs and you have all of these employers,” she said. “And sometimes there is a disconnect between the two. Meaning, teachers have to teach, counselors have to counsel. They don’t have anybody to get out into the community and connect them into those employers … so what workforce development programs attempt to do, just like Wilson Works will do, is to connect the two.”
So far, Chumley has been meeting with local businesses and educational programs to lay the foundation for Wilson Works. Her first goal is to organize a virtual job fair for the Class of 2021 by their graduation this spring.
“You’ve got to crawl before you walk, so I’m trying to start small,” she said. “I’d like to see Wilson Works have a program we can do that’s more immediate, because quite frankly everything’s cancelling. Career fairs, job fairs, in-person everything is cancelling. But that still doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who are looking for work or need help.”
Post-pandemic, Chumley wants to see improved career and job fairs for students as young as fifth grade, along with helping to create more opportunities for internships and work-based learning.
“Educators have resoundingly told me without a doubt, we would really like to see more work-based learning, internships or apprenticeships,” she said. “They would like to be able to plug their students into the employers more so than they have been able to.”
Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto said he often heard from students that were unfamiliar with their career options while working as an educator. He is among several county officials who have backed Wilson Works as a solution.
“This has been a goal from our office for well over two years,” he said. “We try to recruit industries, and the first thing they ask us is about our workforce, availability and the skills our workers have. And a lot of times, they’re very specific about what skills they’re looking for.”
Chumley said there are more local employers looking for help than people may realize.
“Take an easy little drive down the road through any of the industrial parks and it’s all you see: hiring, hiring hiring,” she said. “Employers are struggling to find enough people. I had a conversation, I just visited with Performance Foodservice … they have room for six salespeople, 10 order selectors and they could use 10 CDL drivers right now. And they’re not the only ones.”
Performance Foodservice is one of the initial community investors in Wilson Works, alongside Novamet Specialty Products, Middle Tennessee Electric and the Joint Economic & Community Development Board. Additional funding came from a ThreeStar grant through the state.
“You have to just really give a shout out to companies that, in the middle of a pandemic, will step up and put some money on the table to say ‘we know this is worthwhile,’” Chumley said.
The goal is for those kinds of companies to connect with educators through Wilson Works, with the educators in turn reaching out to their students. Recent graduates could also play a role in that process.
“One of the best people to tell the workforce story, especially those out of high school, are those kids who’ve graduated recently and they are working full time jobs,” Chumley said. “They can look at the younger kids that are still in high school, and they resonate. They’re going to believe somebody their own age more than me.”
Chumley has been working with Wilson County Schools Public Information Officer Bart Barker to find alumni that can share those stories. He said the district supports the new program and looks forward to being involved.
“We have such an incredible amount of skills and talent in our schools,” Barker said in an email to the Democrat. “For those who graduate from our schools, we’d love for them to make a difference in our communities while making a living.”
Lebanon Wilson County Chamber of Commerce President Melanie Minter said Wilson Works has been roughly three years in the making in order to meet that goal.
“There will be internships, apprenticeships,” she said. “They’ll want to train them and teach them about how they can make a career and live in Wilson County, stay in Wilson County and be with their families … we see it as a need when we go to meetings, and it’s what we hear and now we know at this point there’s an increase in unemployment, so it should be a time we can try to bridge that gap between what the educational systems have to offer and what the businesses need.”
After a few weeks on the job, Chumley is excited about the possibilities she sees for workforce development in the area.
“I really feel very energized by Wilson County,” Chumley said. “I think that everybody has the right idea, they just need somebody to help take the first step, then the second step and then the third step until we get where we need to go.”