Emsi Case Study (See Full Archive)
In south central Tennessee, it’s known as the Northfield Project. Community leaders, led by the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance, have turned a former GM building into a hotspot for demand-driven technical training, conferences, and business office space. The transformation is a vivid example of a workforce board and its county mayors taking the lead to help rejuvenate their regional economy.
From Saturn’s Headquarters to Workforce Development Center
General Motors’ 320,000-square-foot Northfield building has been part of the Spring Hill, Tenn., landscape since the late 1980s. Visible from Saturn Parkway, and just a few miles from Interstate 65, Northfield once served as the corporate headquarters and a training site for Saturn, a division of GM. But many who lived in Maury County, even those who drove by it regularly, didn’t pay much attention to the sprawling building.
“This is literally one of the biggest buildings in the county and a lot of folks don’t even know it’s there,” says Jan McKeel, the executive director of the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance.
All that is changing, however.
Once GM started moving Saturn back to Detroit in the early 2000s, the offices at Northfield began to empty out. By 2009, GM was going through bankruptcy and “folks were actually looking at the option of tearing this facility down,” McKeel recalls.
While all this was happening, and for several years before, McKeel and other leaders had been making a push to provide technical training in Maury County. The region’s major industry was heavy manufacturing, but there was only one community college in the county, and it focused mostly on transfer programs — not technical coursework.
Maury County had a clear need for a technical training facility, and Northfield was a perfect fit.
Workforce Alliance Takes the Lead
Spearheaded by McKeel, the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance hashed out a deal with GM to move into Northfield in late 2009. The state provided funds to make Northfield separate from the rest of GM’s Spring Hill campus, and the workforce board is set to purchase the building outright in 2014.
Through a public-private partnership, SCTWA has repurposed the building into a workforce development and conference center, as well as a prime location for office space that generates jobs for the region. The first big tenant at Northfield is Ibex Global, a major call center that supports AT&T, DirecTV, and another popular tech company. It employs 1,400 people at Northfield. “That became a real economic development coup for us,” McKeel says.
The rent from Ibex Global and others help fund what McKeel says is her real passion: training for in-demand jobs. One-third of Northfield is used to host programs for 200 to 300 students that, while operated by area colleges, aren’t otherwise available in the region. Examples include automotive technology, industrial maintenance, and advanced integrated industrial technology (AIIT). The AIIT program includes a mechatronics certificate-level offering and a two-year degree from Columbia State Community College. McKeel and staff are working on tying in four-year universities, so the AIIT program can serve as the first two years of a bachelor’s-level engineering program.
Every program at Northfield is driven by employer need and the labor market demand indicated by data from Emsi. If proposed programs aren’t up to snuff, they don’t go in.
“We don’t put things in there if the data doesn’t show it’s an in-demand program,” McKeel says. “Which of course is what colleges and technology centers ought to be doing anyway, and for the most part, they are. We really are able to do it because it’s our building.”
SCTWA: An Example of a Proactive WIB
The Northfield Project has been a success all around — for the region’s employers, for GM, and for the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance.
“We are really proud of Northfield because it has broadened our scope, and frankly, it has raised our visibility in not just the community but the region. It’s given us credibility. It’s all good.” — Jan McKeel, South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance
Much of the training at the site is paid by employers, and all of it is done by traditional training providers such as Columbia State, the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (the Pulaski and Hohenwald campuses), and other institutions as needed. What’s more, the venture has shone a light on the positive work that SCTWA does as the region’s workforce board — even outside its day-to-day Workforce Investment Act-related activities.
“We are really proud of Northfield because it has broadened our scope, and frankly, it has raised our visibility in not just the community but the region,” McKeel says. “It’s given us credibility. It’s all good. And it’s so much more than just what the WIA paying for the training piece is. Most of the things that are going on at Northfield now, we’re not even paying for the training.”
One of McKeel’s favorite Northfield success stories came early on. During GM’s widespread layoffs in 2009, a group of engineers at the Spring Hall plant lost their jobs. Most had been associated with the plant since its inception in the late 1980s, so they had significant manufacturing experience (and their careers were winding down).
“Using the data and resources that we had, we knew there was a huge market for secondary math and science teachers,” McKeel says. “So we went to a number of those engineers that were being laid off — who all had bachelor’s degrees in either science or math for the most part — and we worked with Belmont University, a private university in Nashville. Belmont came into Northfield and did a fast-track teacher’s certification, because keep in mind these folks already had four-year degrees.”
A year later, 14 of the 16 engineers, armed with the necessary certification, went to work as math and science instructors at area school districts.
“There are some areas that cannot find a math teacher, that cannot find a science teacher,” McKeel says. “So that’s probably one of the programs that we’re most proud of. And on top of that, we came close to replacing these folks’ wages that they had been making.”
The program was a win-win, just like the transformation of the Northfield building.
Emsi turns labor market data into useful information that helps organizations understand the connection between economies, people, and work. Using sound economic principles and good data, we build user-friendly services that help educational institutions, workforce planners, and regional developers build a better workforce and improve the economic conditions in their regions. For more information, email Josh Wright (email@example.com) or visit www.economicmodeling.com.