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MEMPHIS CROSSROADS: McKitten Brings New Energy to Workforce Initiative

The following is a feature from our Memphis Crossroads Magazine. Click here to view the full issue.

She’d heard some trash talk about Memphis, and it wasn’t on her list of places to see. So when the plant manager’s job came open at DuPont Chemical Solutions Enterprises and was offered to her, Deborah McKitten was hesitant.  

But then she visited Memphis. She moved to Memphis. She fell for Memphis.
And she took on a role to impact Memphis. McKitten, fresh into town, joined the Greater Memphis Chamber’s Chairman’s Circle, a group of business executives collaborating on economic development initiatives. This fall, she became co-chair of the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce, a collaboration envisioned by the “Harvard Tech” Moon Mission, among five moon missions the Chairman’s Circle set forth to make Memphis a world-class city.

McKitten has only been in the Greater Memphis area about six months.

“I tell everybody that Memphis is underrated,” McKitten said. “We weren’t sure we’d like Memphis, but we love it. What a nice city.”

Believe it or not, one of the things McKitten likes is the traffic. Yes, traffic. She was a unit manager at the DuPont plant in Richmond, Virginia before moving to Memphis, her eighth move in almost 25 years with the company, and she had a one-hour commute. Interstate 95 was crowded, hectic. Now she lives in Piperton, a 45-minute commute on Tenn. 385 to the DuPont plant near Millington.

“Traffic here? There is none,” McKitten said. Though the commute isn’t much shorter, “it’s peaceful,” she said. Her mind is calmer, and she spends the time in her car either preparing for the workday or unwinding from the day’s challenges.

And the restaurants. She loves Memphis’ restaurants. She can be in the rural setting of her neighborhood and after a short drive be surrounded by dining options. She loves Houston’s, Seasons 52 and the Majestic Grille. Or a quick drive can get you to attractions and entertainment, like a Redbirds game. 

She and her husband, a commercial airlines pilot, also love Memphis’ sense of community. “I think people are very friendly here. It is a very warm community. We’ve found it easy to get to know people.”

It was that sense of community, a sense that each person’s contribution is important to the well-being of the whole that was part of McKitten’s desire to get involved in the Chairman’s Circle. She’d met with Chamber president and CEO Phil Trenary shortly after becoming the DuPont plant manager, and they’d talked about workforce capability and the “Harvard Tech” Moon Mission. The initiative is intended to ensure there are properly trained workers available to staff existing and expected factories in Memphis. That was a concern at McKitten’s workplace.

“That’s a real need at this site,” said McKitten at her office, placed near the entrance of the 400-acre DuPont complex on Fite Road. 

The Memphis DuPont plant, a maker of industrial chemicals, is a city unto itself, with a network of streets, traffic and safety signs, and it even has its own fire department. DuPont employs 210 full-time people at the plant and 150 contractors.

“It’s not that the workforce is not smart enough or hardworking. It’s about having the right training at high school and in community college,” McKitten said.

McKitten, who has a bachelor’s of science degree in chemical engineering, said DuPont looks for applicants who understand the dynamics of chemical processes. Due in part to upcoming retirements, the plant will have a continuous need to fill 15 to 20 positions for months to come. The plant’s hiring needs include boiler operators and industrial and electrical mechanics.

McKitten was acquainted with intentionally linking the needs of the industrial community with the education offered at community colleges. The DuPont plant in New Johnsonville, Tenn., where McKitten worked seven years ago, had an arrangement with a community college while she was there. The college gave students training on things like pumps and valves, providing students who wanted a job at DuPont a leg up in the hiring process. 

What the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce is trying to do is on a bigger scale, McKitten said. She feels her role is to be a voice for the business community in regards to the kinds of things that help people be successful if they seek out a career in industry. 

“They’ve done so much work,” McKitten said of the Alliance, “and I’m coming in progress. I look forward to helping contribute to the effort.”

Willie Gregory, chairman of the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce, met McKitten soon after she arrived in Memphis. They both were in attendance at a meeting at the airport. Her enthusiasm caught his attention. At the time, he had a vacancy for co-chair on the organization.

"I was very impressed with her," Gregory said. "I had a great feeling about her. She was new in town, and I always feel if our city is going to continue to be successful, we're going to need new energy. I consider her my Number One draft pick."

Story by: Toni Lepeska
Photo by: Troy Glasgow

Posted: 6/16/2015 11:07:17 AM | with 0 comments

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The latest news from the Greater Memphis Chamber. For more information, contact Director of Communications Christina Meek at (901) 543-3504 ( or Communications Specialist Jenny C. Fish at (901) 543-3558 (