Chamber, CCS team up to shape a workforce-ready community

The handshake: it’s crucial in establishing a positive first impression, but a dying art.

It’s part of a set of soft skills — along with eye contact, showing up for work on time and dressing professionally — that industry leaders complain are sorely lacking in the current workforce.

Kelly Johnson, director of Clinton City Schools, and Rick Meredith, president of the Anderson County Chamber of Commerce, hope to change that.

“We don’t teach our children at a young age to be on time,” Meredith said. “We play sports and high school football is at 7:30, not 7:45. The players are ready to go, the fans are ready to go… you might as well come to work on time, it’s the same thing.”

Meredith has been president of the chamber for the past three years and said he has already seen improvement, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Johnson is on the education committee with the Chamber of Commerce.

“Industries in the area were saying that students lacked soft skills,” she said. “So we worked with CNS in Oak Ridge to implement the Ace of Shakes program for fourth-graders all across the district.”

The program kicked off last year with Clinton Police Department’s Lt. Jim Campbell. He taught the students how to present themselves, give a proper handshake, speak loudly and clearly and how to have a pleasant look on their faces, according to Johnson.

“He walks them through the importance of that and making a good first impression,” she said.

It’s a four-week program, and kids continue to practice their skills with their classmates. Once a week, members of the community come to the schools to give the students more time to practice. At the end, Lt. Campbell comes back for the final handshake.

“I don’t know who has a better time, the kids or the community members,” said Johnson.

“They leave and are so amazed, especially if they see it from the beginning. The students speak with confidence.”

The fourth-graders then become ambassadors. They welcome visitors to the schools and implement what they have learned, according to Johnson. The fourth-graders this year are not as timid as last year, something that Johnson attributes to last year’s third-graders watching the fourth-graders.

“I’m hoping it will build a culture of the importance of soft skills,” she said.

While soft skills are just a piece of the puzzle in creating a workforce-ready community, Meredith believes it’s a step in the right direction. Many of the industries in town, like 3M, Aisin, SL and Eagle Bend Manufacturing, have a “three strikes you’re out” policy when it comes to attendance, according to Meredith.

“They want you there at work,” he said.