Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration is forcing 1,600 information technology workers across state government to re-apply for their jobs in an effort to screen out those who can’t master the skills of a rapidly changing field, reports The Tennessean. The state employees association said IT workers are nervous. But the state’s chief information officer said most of them don’t need to worry.
“This is really not about getting rid of people,” Mark Bengel said Wednesday. “It’s about making sure that we do have the skills and we have the ability to develop and retain staff in the future.”
He said Science Applications International Corp., a consulting firm, has started looking at 23 state agencies’ IT operations and analyzing the gap between the skills employees have and the ones they need. Most of its recommendations won’t take effect until the 2014-15 budget year.
“Technology is moving so fast that skills are obsolete in the blink of an eye,” Bengel said.
The changes come in the wake of several large-scale computer system problems that have hindered operations in various state offices, including the Department of Children’s Services, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, and the Department of Human Services. The state’s “Project Edison” system, launched in 2008 to bring outdated payroll, accounting and vendor tracking systems into a single, integrated system, was rife with glitches for a couple of years.
Haslam told The Tennessean last fall that some computer systems were “in the ditch.” In part due to those difficulties, the governor has established a Business Solutions Delivery office to centralize IT expertise as the state embarks on contracting for future projects.
Bengel said the IT challenges at some of the departments “certainly contributed” to the restructuring decision.
International Paper wants $56.9 million in tax breaks over the next 15 years and, if it doesn’t get them, threatens to move jobs out of its Memphis facility, according to the Commercial Appeal.
(If given the tax breaks) the company commits to retain 2,274 high-paying jobs in Memphis, add 101 new ones and invest $115.7 million, including construction of a fourth office tower at its East Memphis corporate headquarters.
The company has filed its application for a retention PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes. The Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) for Memphis & Shelby County is to vote on the application Wednesday.
International Paper’s application detailed the company’s options if the EDGE board were to deny the tax break.
“Move a significant number of its high-paying jobs from Memphis to Ohio, where it currently owns facilities which could house these workers — a decision that could also presage Memphis’ loss of additional existing jobs to Ohio, as well as the loss of future growth to Ohio …,” the application states.
A second option would be to move International Paper’s corporate headquarters to a newly constructed campus outside Tennessee. “This is the lowest cost option for IP …,” the document states. There’s been some speculation the company was considering a move to DeSoto County.
Samar Ali, whose appointment as an international trade specialist in the Department of Economic and Community Development touched off a round of criticism earlier this year, has been personally silent on the situation while defended by Gov. Bill Haslam and others in the administration. (A previous story, HERE) But she was interviewed by Dave Flessner for a story in Sunday’s Chattanooga TFP. Ali, who grew up in Waverly, Tenn., and was once student president at Vanderbilt University, said such attacks were “hurtful.” But she called them “silly” and untrue. The 30-year-old lawyer said she has been pleased by the support of the Haslam administration and others across the state as she tries to expand the international reach of the state’s products and services.
She says she is focused on expanding the state’s trade offices around the globe and working to boost exports from Tennessee by 10 percent in each of the next five years.
“I really believe that adversity does introduce you to yourself,” she said during a recent visit to Chattanooga. “I joined this administration because I really love Tennessee and believe in Gov. Haslam’s vision and leadership.”
Haslam administration officials have stood by Ali and her trade efforts despite her critics.
Clint Brewer, assistant commissioner in the state Department of Economic and Community Development, called Ali “one of the brightest leaders of her generation from this state.”
“Her extensive work experience in international business makes her eminently qualified to serve the people of the Volunteer State,” he said.
Ali earned both an undergraduate and law degree from Vanderbilt University where she was the first Arab-Muslim student president and spoke out against terrorism after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
“I left Tennessee when I was 25, but no other place felt like home — it’s in my soul,” she said during the recent visit. “My family, which is very important to me, is here, and I want to be a part of something that I believe in. I had three months of some people who were upset with my background. But I decided that that wasn’t going to erase my good memories and why I came back and why I was here.”
Ali is here to boost both exports from Tennessee companies and investments in the state from foreign firms. She is working to open new state-funded trade offices in Britain, Mexico, Germany, China and India to help Tennessee businesses export around the globe.
Tennessee’s efforts are being aided by a 3-year federal grant, which rose this year to $610,000, to support the trade offices, trade missions and a new Tennessee Trade Academy.
Ali believes such programs can help businesses of all sizes to sell more of their goods around the globe and boost the state’s $30 billion-a-year of export sales.
Tea party and anti-Muslim activists are taking aim at a recent hire by the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam, targeting one of its top economic development officers based on her religion and past work experience, reports Chas Sisk. The Center for Security Policy, a Washington, D.C., organization that has frequently attacked Muslims for perceived ties to Islamist groups, and the 8th District Tea Party Coalition, an umbrella organization of West Tennessee tea party groups, have urged their members to pressure Haslam and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty to dump Samar Ali, an attorney appointed last month as the department’s new international director.
The groups depict Ali as an Islamic fundamentalist with close ties to President Barack Obama.
The claims are spurious and ECD has no intention of firing Ali, said Clint Brewer, a department spokesman.
“She’s eminently qualified to do the job,” Brewer said. “We are lucky to be able to have her.”
The pressure campaign, which began last Thursday with a posting on a Center for Security Policy blog, does not appear to have been effective.