Stewart Houston Times – Stewart County Mayor Rick Joiner thinks a bigger-picture approach will benefit the future of Stewart County when individual counties in the area begin to pool resources.
Joiner has been among leaders from Montgomery and Robertson counties in Tennessee, as well as Christian, Trigg and Todd counties in Kentucky and Fort Campbell officials, meeting recently to develop strategies that will help keep soldiers leaving the Army in the area.
“We want to promote what we have, and not just in Stewart County, but in the general geographic area,” Joiner said, adding that Clarksville might showcase its industries while Stewart County will tout its outdoor recreation and rural lifestyle.
He believes that developing the six counties as one large community will also benefit non-military residents of Stewart and Houston counties.
“We are gathering information about what assets we have (as a group) to keep soldiers here, but still it can be used by local people,” the county mayor said. “It will be a benefit for all of us.”
The meetings are being facilitated by Workforce Essentials, and the effort is tentatively being called Campbell Strong.
John Watz, Workforce Essentials vice president for strategic planning and development, explained that the federal government’s sequestration and expected loss of an aviation brigade at Fort Campbell is the basis for forming the alliances.
The Department of Defense has a division called the Office of Economic Adjustment, which assists communities that lose military-related revenue because of events like a base closure or loss of a defense contract for a manufacturer in the community.
Last April, the local governments that surround Fort Campbell asked the OEA for an impact study about the loss of 2,500 soldiers on the area’s economy and received a grant for the study. The group began meeting during the summer and Watz expects to study to be completed in three to four.
Campbell Strong is working to develop four key opportunities with the grant money.
- Unify the six counties in a “defense alliance.” Instead of individual economic development entities of each pursuing various goals, they will now take a group approach.
- Develop a work-force development strategy by means of a “talent map.” “What are our strengths and weaknesses,” Watz said. “We don’t really know. We have some automotive (industries), some chemical manufacturing, and we have an agriculture background.”
- Develop an “asset map” of what the area has to offer and how to capitalize on it.
- Promote entrepreneurship. Watz said each year between 5,000 and 5,200 soldiers leave the Army. “We’ve been tapping into that some, but if you’ve got a need for plumbers and you have six soldiers who have been engineers, and they have been working in that level, and they like this area, and there’s an option for them to continue on with their skill set, locally. Why aren’t we going in there and saying, hey, do you want to start your own business?”
Watz said a survey was conducted six or seven years ago, asking soldiers if they planned to stay in local area (about a 50-75 mile radius of Fort Campbell). Twenty percent said yes.
The next question was if they had a job would they stay, and 46-48 percent answered yes.
“That’s a 20 percent increase of people who leave and go someplace, that we don’t tap into,” Watz said. “Right now, we haven’t put our hands around those 5,000 people.”
After the strategy development is complete, the group will apply for another grant to implement what their plan.
Watz said a website also will be developed from the study results, which will allow people to access the information. “We don’t want this to be just another study that gets put on a shelf in an office,” he added.
Joiner said one way Stewart County could benefit early on is with the Emergency Medical Service, which has had difficulty finding applicants for Emergency Medical Technician and paramedic jobs.
“A transitioning soldier might already have some medical skills, and with some training, they could be certified,” he said. “And if they like the rural lifestyle here, he or she might want to come and work here.”
Watz said Workforce Essentials is in the initial stages of working with Montgomery County EMS and the military to expedite some post-military training.
“Say you are in the military, and you get out and want to go into the medical field,” he said. “You have to start all over again because the civilian side doesn’t accept what the military side does. But guess what, it kinda does now.”
Records of soldiers’ military training are kept at Fort Sam Houston, and the new pilot program will request that the records be sent to Montgomery County. Thus, a soldier can move into an accelerated training class “because they already proved they’ve done that through the records at Fort Sam Houston,” Watz said.
“We have to build that talent connection between Stewart and Houston counties and Fort Campbell so former soldiers can work local,” Watz said. “That’s what we are missing now but the steps are being set up to build that pipeline. And I think it’s something the rural counties are going to like on both sides of the state line.”
Beyond the medical field, Watz talked about law enforcement jobs, which is a popular profession with military veterans.
At a program for transitioning soldiers at Fort Campbell last week, a representative from a local Sheriff’s Office joined police departments from several major cities across the country to recruit soldiers.
“Literally, (the sheriff’s representative) had to stop doing individual mini interviews,” Watz said. “He had so many people who wanted to get into the sheriff’s department locally, that he had to eventually get to a point where he was briefing six and seven guys and gals at a time.”
He speculated that because many local law enforcement agencies have had former soldiers apply for jobs in the past, the assumption is they will seek out local departments.
“That’s where we’ve got to shift some of the thinking of local businesses,” he said.
Watz agrees that such strategic recruiting will be a major factor in the future job market.
“I think it is because of the graying of America — the lack of the skilled trades across the board,” he said. “We have X amount of people retiring and only Y amount of people coming in because of lower birth rates in the nation and in Tennessee. So there’s an untapped pipeline that we need to put more of our work-force effort into, and that’s the soldiers coming out of Fort Campbell.”