Generational change creates both challenges and opportunities for Kingsport

            I visited Nashville this week. I attended an entrepreneurial conference and combined a short weekend vacation with my wife. What a vibrant town!

It is loaded with young people, a term that for me now describes anyone under fifty. Seriously, Nashville seems overrun with Millennials in particular, the demographic of which I have come to see as not only those people who “are my kids’ age;” but also the growing up and coming bulk of our workforce.

Demographic trends are somewhat unexpected. Nationally, Millennials already outnumber Baby-boomers and Gen-Xers in the workforce. By 2020, they will more than double my generation.

More surprising is the fact that due to their smaller size Gen-Xers will never compose a majority of the working population. In effect, we will have skipped a working generation. The implications of this are enormous.

First, there will not be a smooth transition as skills and attitudes slowly change. There will be a step change as a generation twice-removed suddenly becomes predominant.

We also will become both older and younger at the same time. Requirements for an entire range of services will split overnight: delivery of healthcare, housing types, restaurant and retail preferences, etc.

The younger generation will have 20% more college degrees than my generation, but they will have less experience. They will be more educated, but have fewer skills. (Our kids never took wood shop.) They can work with computers and smart phones, but not with their hands.

Sadly, societal focus on getting a bachelor’s degree, may not entirely mesh with the requirements of a technical economy. A general business degree is not the same as an engineering degree and may not even provide as strong a future as a technical associate’s degree. I realize this is heresy to say!

Anecdotal evidence may indicate that a basic post-secondary education is simply becoming the baseline requirement that a high school diploma once meant. You are now qualified for entry level employment. Furthermore, there will be scant demand for a simple secondary education, beyond minimum-wage subsistence-level positions.

This condition highlights another demographic divide growing in our region. There is a increasing educational/social-economic gap in addition to the age differentiation. Our well-paying manufacturing jobs have been supplanted by low-paying retail and hospitality employment. This fosters a downward cycle. While this is largely spawned by global economic trends, it has been exacerbate locally by our deliberate policy of subsidizing the very sectors that drag down our employment and income levels.

Like it or not, employment at the McDonald’s counter has become a career, rather than transitional employment. Every minimum-wage job consigns another person to poverty and places a greater burden on tax-supported services. More critically, it seems to remove the incentive to become better educated and advance up the economic ladder. It becomes the readily available tolerable solution for far too many people.

Concurrently, there is a growing age gap. Baby-boomers are aging toward retirement. At the very same time, Millennials are becoming a larger segment of the local workforce. This is not simply an indigenous phenomenon. Large industries are trying to find employees and are recruiting new talent from a group that is far more diverse than our current region.

A growing clash of culture may be in the brewing. This transition, when it happens will be like a tipping point rather than slow evolution. The question is whether we are adequately preparing for the change.

If we are honest, the answer to that question is, “No, we are not prepared, but we have been making strides.” However, we need to do much more to prepare ourselves for the future.

First, our workforce training programs are functioning well, but need to be expanded beyond providing personnel for existing industries. They need to also look at what skills can be enhanced to put younger people to productive work.

The reversing trend of outsourcing is creating some new possibilities. A collaborative effort between the educational institutions and private business can train and accredit programmers and computer technicians. There are significant opportunities to organize internships and co-op positions to employ high school and technical school students and graduates under expert supervision to undertake basic level programing projects for local business. This creates jobs locally and gives industry an opportunity to invest rather than donate to the community.

We also need to build a new business environment based on entrepreneurship. Most Millennials believe they will start or work for start-up business. Simply having a sole source of employment-Eastman, without the opportunity to spin off a new idea and build an independent future makes us far less attractive than places in which the entrepreneurial environment is thriving.

This atmosphere exists in places like Nashville and Charlotte, but it is also growing in regions comparable to us like Chattanooga. At the conference I attended, thirty-six start-up companies from around the south-east competed. Companies from the other parts of the State were represented, but not one company from the Tri-Cities was among them.

In this respect, the state really did end at Knoxville. Our region simply will not thrive if we cannot change that condition.

The newly elected leadership in Kingsport has an opportunity to set a new course, one that recognizes who we are and capitalizes on all that we have built. We have a chance to create new opportunities in our community. I support their planned efforts to bring this to fruition.

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3 Responses

  1. Pretty controversial post. All I can add is what I see. Most of my “older” millennial friends (28 to 33 yr olds) that live in big cities are overhelmed. As mentioned in your post, have master degrees but graduate with huge college loans. They are lucky if they can afford to get married, much less save for a down payment on a house. Having kids is way out of the picture. I just came back from Miami this week (where I was raised) and it was a huge discussion that pains me to hear from them. I’m fortunate that I craved life in a small town away from FL that allows me the chance to be a wife, mother, homeowner, and small biz owner with an MBA at 29. Dave having Aundrea Y. Wilcox and the KOSBE office has been tremendous support and guidance for this big city girl in the Tri-Cities!

  2. Mickey Burton says:

    Dave, This truly is a sleeping giant. These demographics are as real as an avalanche and moving at a high pace that will change our business, social and religious cultures. All segments must be educated so to be better prepared for what is reality changing every birth and retirement.
    The facts are real…Our country’s perspective needs to get real…real fast.
    Thanks for taking your time.

  3. Greg Hensley says:

    “Not one company from the Tri Cities was represented”……..They couldn’t get a building permit from one of our 17 engineers on city payroll, so they went to Knoxville.