Chairman’s Circle head: ‘We are preparing people for careers, not jobs’

By , Daily Memphian Updated: May 27, 2022 1:11 PM CT | Published: May 24, 2022 9:57 AM CT

As Regions Bank’s top executive in commercial banking for the seven-state area, David May’s job has taken him away from home three nights a week for 30 years.

His side gig now makes that seem like cake.

May is leading the corporate executive side of a massive regional effort to improve the workforce as it prepares for the 6,000 workers Blue Oval City needs to open in 2025, plus the 20,000 affiliated jobs that parts companies and suppliers are lining up to need.

That’s on top of the Swiss cheese of staffing that shops, factories and hospitals have been limping along with here for months.

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“These workers are going to come from Arkansas, Mississippi, the Mid-South,” said May, chairman of the Chairman’s Circle, the 145 most influential executives in Memphis, the nexus of power in the Greater Memphis Chamber.

“They are going to come from our current employers,” May said. “That’s why a lot of our employers went, ‘Wow, OK, so the vacancies we have now might even get bigger?’”

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In the last 30 days, postings for jobs in Memphis have exceeded 275,632, according to chamber data.

The antidote is quickly delivering skill-certification courses — eight to 22 weeks long — getting workers up to speed, pronto, without a high school transcript, financial aid or prerequisites.

By fall, three courses — construction, manufacturing and logistics — will be ramped up. By next winter, May said, two or three other accelerated courses will be running.

“We’re talking courses that are eight weeks to 28 weeks, not a year or two years before you get a diploma or degree,” he said. “It gets them a certificate to get into a job that has a career path. So not just a dead-end job.”

The certificates prove the worker is proficient in a skill — maybe AC/DC power sources — and has passed an industry-approved test.

The idea is to get workers — particularly the 23% with a high school diploma or less — quickly skilled up, on the company floor and getting a check that reflects their new skills.

“The important thing is we are preparing people for careers, not jobs,” May said.

His conversation tends to be fact-based.

“At any one time we might have 20 companies circling Memphis to see if they want to make it home,” he said. “Right now. I think it’s 48 or 49.

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“Is a lot of that Blue Oval related? Sure,” he said. “But I’ll take that too. If somebody is willing to move to Memphis, especially if they want to move their headquarters here, that’s just incredible.”

But he also said being content with a low-skill labor force with the assets Memphis has — water, weather, warehouses and logistics — is illogical.

The money low-skill workers may be able to make could rewrite the poverty story here, moving people currently on subsistence wages into middle-class lives or better.

The blueprint for Memphis is what Valencia College is doing at its 10 locations in Orlando. The Chairman’s Circle sent a delegation in February to look at the chassis.

“One of the people I was talking to had gotten her CDL license again, one of the programs Valencia offers,” May said. “Her wages had gone to almost $100,000 a year driving a truck. She said, ‘The difference for my family was huge.’

“Teaching people how to handle their financial health is something that’s going to have to come alongside in this program because it’s transformative.

“When people go through these programs, they’re making $18, $20 minimum and up,” May said. “That can change your family. And that’s what I’m all about. If we can invest in families in Memphis and the surrounding area to lift them up, it could change everything.”

The backbone of a new 22-week course in industrial maintenance — skills needed in manufacturing, including machining — will be tested this fall at Southwest Tennessee Community College. The pilot will have room for 15 students.

The course, tweaked with improvements from the trial run, will start in January, likely at Southwest’s Macon campus, with room likely for 24, said Amy Shead, executive director of workforce and community solutions.

“Anyone who completes the accelerated program can come back,” she said. “They will already have credit. We created a career path, so they can enter with a certain credential and then continue to stack them.

“Our traditional student comes two days a week,” she said. “In the accelerated class, the student will be here four days a week.”

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The 22-week course will give companies employees who can run manufacturing processes, including programmable logical controls, the coding that tells the machines what to do, Shead said.

“They can perform maintenance on machines,” she said. “They are your troubleshooters. They keep your facilities running.”

Southwest is also looking at accelerated offerings in welding and IT, she said.

Other courses will be designed this summer in Chairman’s Circle member boardrooms and on college campuses.

“Depending on which course, it’s maybe Moore Tech, maybe Southwest Community College and the University of Memphis,” May said. “We’ve brought them all to the table and laid out how this is going to work and how industry will help set up the needs.

“We have some industry experts, including one from Ohio State that will be here in June,” he said. “They will sit down with the people that are doing the job at these companies and say what does a day in the life look like? What do we need them to know and literally map out the course?

“Then we’ll stand up the course and recruit and put the people in,” he said.

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May laughs when he says corporate executives are not the ones who will be writing the curriculum.

“We want the person who drives the excavator, who knows the heavy equipment,” he said.

One of his favorite examples of agility is a soldering process that had to quickly change at a manufacturing plant in Orlando.

“They got the teacher, rewrote the program that night, and they were teaching something different the next morning,” May said. “That’s the nimbleness of the company and ultimately of an employer being invested with the class. When the people come out, they are workforce ready.”

The majority of the cost will be covered by Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funds, funneled to the states by the U.S. Department of Labor by a formula that considers education, unemployment and poverty rates.

Shelby County and its three surrounding counties received a total of $8.7 million in 2021, about a third of Tennessee’s allocation, to cover instruction and materials in job-training programs, including tools the students need to go to work.

“They show up on the job, job ready,” May said.

WIOA money does not cover costs of building, renting or heating or cooling classroom space. It does not cover transportation or childcare, both long part of the missing pieces in the ready-to-work picture that will need solutions in the accelerated upscaling the region is quickly trying to map out.

“The transportation could be MATA, or maybe MyCityRides steps up with a scooter. We’ll have to figure out all of the solutions and map those needs so that people can focus during that period of time. And they don’t come out with a bunch of debt either.”

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WIOA is expected to cover 80% of the recurring training costs, significant, said Kyla Guyette, president of Workforce Mid-South Inc.

Guyette said she expects the funds to increase exponentially because all the counties in the region are pooling their workforce grant applications in the same direction.

“We are committed and solidly behind the idea that we need to provide better upscaling opportunities and on-ramping especially for adults,” she said. “We are making sure upskilling is a component of every proposal we are putting together.”

Regionally, the 21-county area has applied for $150 million in workforce grants. The final pieces will be announced in July.

The difference with this training is it’s being led by business, not government, said Nancy Coffee, senior vice president of the Chairman’s Circle.

“We want all of Memphis to be able to participate in our region’s economic growth,” Coffee said. “The Chairman’s Circle is leading from the front. The point is to empower more Memphians with the skills they need to take advantage of our economic upswing.”

Members of the Chairman’s Circle pay $25,000 a year to have their voices heard at the platform the circle provides. They tend to be thought leaders.

“The Chairman’s Circle sets the strategic direction for our region’s economic growth,” Coffee said. “They are really charting that course for prosperity.”

We want all of Memphis to be able to participate in our region’s economic growth. The Chairman’s Circle is leading from the front. The point is to empower more Memphians with the skills they need to take advantage of our economic upswing.

Nancy Coffee
senior vice president of the Chairman’s Circle

Guyette finds herself suddenly being asked to speak on workforce readiness issues around the country, including last week in Las Vegas.

“People are interested in knowing what we are doing,” she said. “With the momentum that is here, people around the country are talking about workforce issues in Memphis. Ford was really a good spark, but it was a spark that lit a fire that was already here.”

Shead has been a part of many training programs for adult learners. This one feels different, she said, because lots of players are working together.

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“We’re looking at the data to determine what sectors we should tackle for this region,” she said. “It’s a real effort because we know the need is there and the need is only going to grow if we don’t address it now.”

But no campus knows how the reimbursement will work because there are no assurances yet on the funding.

An omen for Guyette came earlier this month when the University of Memphis received $25 million from the U.S. Department of Human Services to help people on safety-net services, including food stamps, reach financial independence through skills training.

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“The whole point is to never go back and never look back,” said Dick Irwin, head of UM Global, the university’s online and distance learning programs. “We want to put people on a pathway to thriving not surviving.” 

The university will manage the funds for a core of partners that over three years will offer training, transportation and loan forgiveness for people who complete training courses.

That grant covers 21 counties.

“That idea that we have secured $25 million is a really good start on what we are able to do,” Guyette said. “WIOA is the turkey at the Thanksgiving dinner, but we need a lot more to make it a robust meal for folks.”

Irwin and his team interviewed 450 people receiving safety-net services, including temporary assistance to needy families, to find out what training they need. It also interviewed 30 employers in a variety of sectors to understand their workforce issues.

“Ninety-four percent of the people we interviewed in focus groups want to work,” Irwin said. “There is a falsehood that people on benefits want to stay on benefits. That is not true.”

May’s own life turned on job skills he learned as a kid in the hardware store owned by his Sunday school teacher in Columbus, Mississippi.

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As a 12-year-old, he was in the aisles at Military Hardware, helping people his parents’ age with plumbing repair and electrical conduits.

“All of a sudden, you are teaching them what a compression fitting is, how it works,” he said. “Since it was a small hardware store, you learned how to do everything — gardening, PVC pipe. And you didn’t know it was a path.

“It’s just not that hard to fix something.”

As he leads this process — last week alone, he spent 18 hours in workforce meetings — he’s struck by how much Memphis companies want to help, even those that aren’t suffering worker shortages.

“Brokerage firms, all kinds of companies willing to work on this and invest in this because it lifts our entire community,” he said.

May accepted the challenge in February when he became chairman. He has one year.

“If you invest in people and their families, it’s amazing what you can see happen,” he said. “We already have the economic engine running, due to the chamber bringing all these businesses here.

“Now, we have to just stand up and deliver curriculum and pathways for our citizens to have a career.”


David May Regions Bank Chairman's Circle Nancy Coffee
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.


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