Ten Years Ago, Consultants Called Kingsport A Rust Belt; Nobody Says That Today

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Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing is Newest Addition to Kingsport, Tennessee's Award-Winning Academic Village

Located in Northeast Tennessee’s Tri-Cities region, Kingsport, an award-winning community of 50,000, is the home of Eastman Chemical Company and a number of other advanced manufacturing industries. It is also the home of the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing (RCAM), a new addition to downtown Kingsport’s Academic Village, which was recently recognized by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Business, and the National League of Cities. Kingsport’s Mayor Dennis Phillips is especially proud of his city’s commitment to education and training.

“We’ve invested more than $20 million dollars of taxpayer’s money into the Academic Village,” the mayor said. “That initiative has brought national attention to Kingsport and really spurred economic growth.”

Jeff Fleming, assistant city manager for development, has the figures to prove that Kingsport’s educational investment has paid off. “When you compare 1990 to 2010 in Kingsport, the city’s population has increased by 30 percent, and the median family income went up by $20,000 a year,” Fleming said. “The poverty rate went down, while the number of Bachelor’s Degrees and Associates Degrees went up. Collectively as a community, we all are doing the things that we need to do to be sustainable for the long term.”

It’s possible to get a four-year degree as well as dozens of degrees and certificates in everything from nursing to welding at Kingsport’s Academic Village. The RCAM facility works closely with industry to provide training for high tech manufacturing jobs. In fact, RCAM was conceived by the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, a joint venture comprised of Eastman Chemical Company, Domtar Paper, local and state governments, and Northeast State Community College.

RCAM is a 26,000 sq. ft. facility designed specifically for advanced manufacturing training. The combination of knowledgeable instructors and state of the art training simulation equipment, like its virtual welder, provides graduates with the skills they need to hit the ground running in nearly a dozen apprenticeship programs lasting two to four years.

Domtar provided the land for RCAM and it has already benefited from the apprenticeship program. “We just graduated our first class of five apprentices from the Domtar Paper Mill,” Charles Floyd, Domtar’s mill manager and vice president said. “As journeymen they now earn 60 percent more in terms of their take home pay, and they have the skills and the knowledge that we need to efficiently maintain and operate the complex, precision equipment in the mill.”

Industries throughout the region and beyond are looking to RCAM to help them replace some of the more than 76 million Baby Boomers retiring during the next 10 to 20 years. Their exodus will create a skills crisis as they take their lifetime knowledge with them leaving job vacancies that demand advanced training. Miles Burdine, Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce’s CEO, believes facilities like RCAM can fill the gap.

“RCAM serves as a link between workers needing new skills and manufacturers needing qualified workers,” Burdine said. “People call me all the time asking for jobs and I tell them that regional employers have jobs, but they need skilled workers to fill them.”

Eastman Chemical Company’s Brian Miller, division superintendent of maintenance and services, agrees with Burdine that RCAM is a working solution to the skills crisis facing the nation. “In the next three to fours years, we anticipate losing another 300 to 400 employees due to retirement,” Miller said. “We’ve got to have a good solid pipeline of new employees coming in to fill that need.”

RCAM is already fast becoming a national model of industry funded and supported facilities for both traditional and non-traditional students seeking advanced manufacturing technology training in key areas such as general technology, chemical process operations, electromechanical technology, electrical technology, and welding/metal fabrication.

Jeff Frazier, RCAM’s director of training and development, is confident that the RCAM concept will spread. “As we incubate the idea of technology training, we can provide students with the right tools to succeed,” Frazier said. “If we can show them that manufacturing careers are not only exciting, but rewarding, then we’ve added an intrinsic value to their lives that might not otherwise be there.”

For more information about Kingsport Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing, visit manufacturingfuture.net, or call 423.354.5149



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