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MTSU president, trustee join Leadership Nashville panel on area growth, opportunities

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MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee (second from right) makes a point at a panel Thursday sponsored by Leadership Nashville.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Finding and keeping a quality workforce in a fast-growth market was the hot topic Thursday at a panel convened Thursday by Leadership Nashville that included MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee.

Nashville-based Chris Karbowiak, executive vice president of Bridgestone Americas, and Jim Flautt, CEO for Asia Pacific and Japan at Asurion, joined McPhee and moderator Janet Miller, CEO of Colliers International, to discuss challenges and opportunities facing top employers.

Leadership Nashville brings together top area leaders for a nine-month program to discuss issues such as government, education, business, labor, diversity and quality of life.

Calling Nashville a "50-year-old overnight success story," Flautt told the group that low unemployment and the city's great marketability also means employers are all "vying for the top talent."

Karbowiak, who also serves on MTSU's Board of Trustees, cited Bridgestone's mechatronic partnership as an asset for its manufacturing workforce. She said, however, she sees competition for administrative, technical and management roles increasing as Nashville's popularity rises.

"The challenge we face is retention, retaining the talent we need," Karbowiak said. "Five years, 10 years from now, will the talent stream still be there?"

That's why education is important, Flautt said, adding, "You have to reskill the workforce and think through how they get into the new economy."

McPhee, speaking on MTSU's role as the top provider of college graduates to the region's economy, said the university has "embraced the challenge of being the biggest university serving this boom town."

"We are doing this by offering majors that are more in sync with what employers want to see in our workforce, both hard skills like mechatronics, management and applied sciences, and soft skills like communications, confidence building, team building and project work," he said.

About 80 percent of MTSU's graduates remain in Tennessee, McPhee said.

The president, scanning the crowd from the stage, asked Wanda Lyle, managing director and general manager of U.S. operations for UBS Business Solutions, based in Nashville, to describe her experience in hiring MTSU graduates.

Lyle said about 30 percent of the 1,400 workers in its Nashville operation were recent college graduates - and most of them came from MTSU. She said many MTSU graduates come to her with work or internship experience and a "down-to-earth" ethic.

"We've been very happy with all the graduates we've hired from all of the universities, but MTSU is our most significant pipeline," Lyle said.

Bridgestone, the world's largest tire and rubber company and maker of industrial rubber and chemical products, and Asurion, a leading provider of device insurance, warranty and support for cell phones and electronics, are global concerns.

As such, both Karbowiak and Flautt underscored the importance of diversity and the need for employees to understand and appreciate differing cultures and markets.

"It's really important to mirror your customer base and understand who your customers are," Karbowiak said. "Those companies with diverse boards and diverse senior management will outperform their peers."

Added Flautt, "We're competing on the global stage - we're not just limited to North America."

McPhee, whose university has almost 40 academic and research partnerships with global universities, including several strategic ties in China, said overlapping strategic interests and economic interdependency pay scant attention these days to borders.

MTSU's "percentage of diversity more than exceeds the total percentages put forward in the state's population and one of the most diverse universities in the country," he said.

"Understanding and embracing diversity is not only the right thing to do, it's also the smart thing to do," the president said.

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