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Diversifying the Workforce, Airfare Prices, Luring the Chip Industry and Boeing

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – The Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce is involved in several projects to lure news and diversify the workforce here, according to Chip Cherry.

Cherry, the Chamber’s President and CEO, joined us November 21 for Leadership Perspectives, WHNT News 19′s in-depth interview segment.

Our Steve Johnson talked with Cherry about a number of topics, including the recent government shutdown and how we weathered it.  Cherry was optimistic.

“Yes. We saw a dip in retail sales numbers, which is what you would anticipate… but a lot of people took a defensive posture,” said Cherry.

Not knowing what their paycheck would be, people braced for the impact earlier.

“Part of that happened because the federal government has been operating on a Continuing Resolution for a long time. People got in a defensive posture, of not over-extending themselves, so they didn’t have to cut back as far,” said Cherry.

Cherry said there are 72 activities taking place on Redstone Arsenal, spreading across a much broader section of the contractor community.

“All of those aren’t going to dip at the same time,” said Cherry. “That helps spread it out.”

Is Huntsville’s workforce diversifying?  We asked.

“I think… there are product curves. Each community has a curve, and you’re always trying to hop that curve, keep new activities coming in,” said Cherry.  “Hudson Alpha gives us a great opportunity to go after an additional market sector.”

Cherry also mentioned Huntsville’s role in a TVA study to review the semi-conductor industry.  Local teams are looking at chip fabrication from different aspects – design, manufacturing and improving the chip’s security.

“This dovetails with our workforce, and with our ability to adapt,” said Cherry.

“There are a number of different opportunities for us, and that’s a diversification play. When you extend the life of your communities from a product perspective, you want to make sure that you have something that’s relevant in an industry that’s growing,” said Cherry.

Boeing

Boeing is looking at different cities for production of the 777X, the company’s next-generation jetliner.  Huntsville is in the running, along with other cities, including Charleston, South Carolina and Long Beach, California.

“We are very encouraged by the fact that they reached out to us,” Cherry said.

Boeing flew a team in earlier this month to meet with Governor Bentley and key leadership.  Huntsville has 50 years of history with Boeing.

“We’re a good fit. Obviously all the communities they’re looking at, they’ll have pluses and minuses associated with those different communities,” said Cherry. “We’re in the process of evaluating that, because we want to present the strongest package possible and have the best chance at winning that work package.”

The International Association of Machinists recently rejected an eight-year labor contract extension that would have assured the 777X jet would be made in Washington state.  That’s what led to other cities jumping to lure Boeing for this project, including Huntsville.

“We believe because of their long history here, and being able to solve complex problems, they’ve had great relationships with the workforce here, they haven’t had the same kind of volatility with the workforce here that they’ve had in other places,” said Cherry. “The workforce here is much more competitive in price than they are in other places because the cost of living is lower here than it is in other high-cost markets.”

Boeing says it will make the decision in three months.

Airline Prices

It’s still expensive to fly out of Huntsville, there’s no disputing that.  The airport retained its unwanted title in a recent study by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Does this affect the Chamber in trying to lure new business, we asked? Cherry said it’s definitely on the radar screen.

“One of the byproducts of us being in a market where we have such a large federal presence, and such a large contractor presence, is that we are a business airport,” said Cherry. “We’re not a leisure travel airport.  The majority of our tickets go to business travelers, and that’s what drives ticket prices.”

“For a market our size, to have the direct flights we have to certain key markets, is very good for a market our size. We’re doing very well in that perspective. We have the frequency of flights that many people want. The challenge is we don’t have the price to along with what some people want.”

“We’re working on it. It’s important to figure it out, but it’s a little give and take,” said Cherry.

Vocational Education

Several of our recent guests on Leadership Perspectives have pressed the importance of vocational degrees, including Mary Scott Hunter, a state board of education member, and Micah Terry, a regional construction manager.

Cherry also said it important to get this message to young people considering careers.

“I think the biggest problem we have, and this is not unique to Huntsville, is that a number of years ago, we decided that vocational education was not a good thing. That it wasn’t a good thing to track people into certain programs — that we should let all of them go to college,” said Cherry.

“When you start talking about where are the skills you need.. a lot of those people are coming through vocational programs, or doing two-year programs.  That’s where the jobs are. We need to do a better job about helping young people make a decision about what they want to do for a living, and not make people feel like ‘if I can’t get a four-year degree I’m not going to be a success’.”