Jobs are here and more are coming.
Now a new wave of local workforce development efforts are in place to get us ready
There is a fascinating phenomenon occurring within the Chattanooga labor market, one shared by metros across the U.S.: a growing divide between real jobs and the real people who need them.
You can think of it like an invisible canyon. On one side are prospective employees – unemployed or underemployed adults, or young people just out of high school or college – who need jobs or want better jobs. On the other side are local employers who need employable talent. Both want to connect, and yet the available workforce’s skills do not match the employers’ current or future needs.
How can we close the divide? That’s where local workforce development efforts come in.
At its core, workforce development seeks to promote a healthy equilibrium between labor supply and labor demand. In markets with a surplus of jobs, it serves to bridge the gap between the workforce’s skills and the employers’ needs.
THE LOCAL LABOR MARKET: A SNAPSHOT According to the Tennessee Department of Workforce Development, an estimated 4,650 jobs are currently available in the Chattanooga area and an estimated 13,000 more will be created here by 2020. Within the state of Tennessee, the Chattanooga area is second only to Nashville when it comes to the rate of job growth.
And yet while these are exciting statistics, the majority of these jobs come with the requirement of a post-secondary credential. For perspective, among all jobs available in Chattanooga today, 55% require some form of post-secondary education and for those paying $35,000 annually, 83% require a post-secondary credential.
Rob Bradham served for five years as the vice president of public strategies at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. He says that for prospective employees, this educational attainment is often the first barrier to getting a job. “In Hamilton County, only 38% of residents have a post-secondary credential,” he says. “That’s a very large gap when you think about 83% of middle-to-high paying jobs requiring one versus only 38% having one.”
Cordell Carter is CEO of the TechTown Chattanooga Foundation, a technology and entrepreneurial learning center dedicated to inspiring the next generation of innovators. He also points to the gap between workforce skills and employer needs. “Employers are looking everywhere they can for talent because it’s the most important component of any organization and a scarce resource,” he says. “The options for talent recruiters are to be exceptional at finding people, to be connected to someone else who trains prospective employees, or to train the employees themselves.”
Currently, the largest portion of vacancies locally fall within traditional companies. However, moving forward, a much higher percentage will fall within advanced industries, or those relying on education related to science, technology, engineering, and math. According to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, among the 13,000 new jobs projected by 2020, more than 8,000 will fall into the “advanced industries” category. Among those 8,000, a very large portion fall within “advanced manufacturing.”
Further complicating the need for new more highly skilled workers is the graying workforce. According to a report released last year by the White House Council of Economic Advisers, aging baby boomers account for nearly half of the decrease in the labor force participation rate since 2007.
Carter says part of the challenge of replacing these retirees is that many have long institutional memories. “Unlike the current generation, these workers were staying in place for longer periods of time and they know things no one else would know. So employers need to replace not only their skills, but their intellectual capital,” he says.
Bradham says this skills gap – between workers and jobs at traditional companies, and workers and jobs in technical fields – is the first issue to be addressed. “Our question at the Chamber is, ‘How do we go about getting people the skills and credentials they need to compete for those jobs that are growing the fastest in our community?’”
Below are five ways community leaders are answering that question.
1 RAISING AWARENESS Local leaders say their first step is simple: growing awareness. They want people to know not only that jobs exist today, but that they are good jobs.
“Almost all of these advanced industry jobs are high-paying jobs in very clean, 21st century manufacturing environments. These are good career jobs that pay a good living wage,” says Bradham. “And yet, we think that many students and adult workers don’t understand the opportunities that exist or how to go about getting the skills they need to move into those industries.”
Bridgett Massengill, project manager for Chattanooga’s Thrive 2055, a citizen-led, public-private endeavor to maximize economic development across the tri-state Chattanooga region, reinforces the importance of raising awareness for these new jobs and the skills they require.
She points to how today’s manufacturing jobs are truly mental, intellectual jobs. “You’re able to use problem-solving skills and analytical skills,” she says. “I often hear from companies that we need to work together to try and change the perception of what these jobs are. We want to help people understand what the workforce actually looks like today and needs tomorrow.”
2 ENGAGING OUR FUTURE WORKFORCE EARLY
As a society, we tend to think about workforce development as a college or even post-college issue. Bradham feels that, systematically, that focus is misplaced.
“Research shows kids start thinking seriously about what they want to be when they grow up in 6th to 8th grade. In our opinion, we need to start reaching those kids sooner. So this awareness needs to start early.”
The Chamber’s workforce development programs for middle school and high school students are designed to build awareness and provide information about the different careers available to them. But they have a second goal, too: to teach “soft skills,” or “work readiness” skills. A catch-all term describing a cluster of personal attributes, soft skills range from communication, collaboration, and adaptability to problem solving, conflict resolution, leadership, and more.
“We talk to employers on a weekly basis about their needs, and there is definitely a credential deficit in soft skills,” Bradham says. “We design our programs to engage younger audiences because most soft skills are developed long before high school.”
Like the Chamber, TechTown feels part of its mission is to give learners a taste of the real jobs available to them combined with training in soft skills. To do this, its facility allows learners to experiment with equipment and exercises in a host of emerging fields like robotics, circuitry, coding, film, media production, and more.
“The common denominator in everything we do is project-based learning,” says Carter. “We engage learners with problems that force them to use every bow in their quiver – because that encourages real life-type problem solving.”
“We hope this facility, and the chance it gives learners to be trained in these basic technologies, will give them more options,” he continues. “Because, without this space, curriculum, and staff, they might not know they could code in a week, build robots, or express themselves. So the goal is hope. Hope leads to optimism and optimism leads to action.”
“At TechTown, we teach learners the whole process of solving a problem. They not only learn how to design and test things, but also how to communicate what they’ve done,” says Mike Harrell, board chairman of the TechTown Chattanooga Foundation. “We also partner with On Point, a youth development organization based here in Chattanooga, on ways to integrate life-skills training into what we’re doing when we teach learners how to do circuitry.”
TechTown’s curriculum is also designed to foster what Carter calls a “collaborative culture of creators.”
“In contrast to traditional learning environments, this is a learner-driven experience so when students have questions, they are advised to talk to their neighbor first,” Carter says. “And if that method doesn’t get them to a solution, to ask another group of learners before seeking help from the instructors. We want them to build things and learn to lean on each other for support in that creative process.”
Harrell feels training programs like these may ultimately help lure additional businesses to our area. “Through working very closely with the Chamber of Commerce, we know prospective businesses are looking specifically for a feeder system. They’re always asking: Can you show me the workforce? How are you preparing it? We see TechTown as a critical piece of Chattanooga’s feeder system. And moving forward, we envision developing tighter partnerships with people and businesses to better meet the needs of both.”
3 INCREASING COLLABORATION BETWEEN EDUCATORS AND EMPLOYERS Preparing more workers also requires more communication and collaboration between local schools and companies, leaders say.
“At the Chamber of Commerce, we look at what jobs of today and tomorrow require versus what people here in the region are studying,” Bradham says. “We try to be the connecting point between what community businesses need and what two-year and four-year institutions are
He says the Chamber is in constant conversation with the Hamilton County Department of Education, Chattanooga State, UTC, and the other two- and four-year institutions about what is in demand. “We’re talking to them about what we hear from companies and how they might go about addressing that,” he says. “We are also working with industries and our schools to make sure that when students graduate, they are prepared for the job market here in our region and not having to look elsewhere.”
Thrive 2055 also brings various parties to the table. Its higher education collaborative initiative recently brought 13 accredited universities and colleges in our 16-county region together to talk about how we can best prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow within the region.
“Open communication lines between schools, educators, and industry is one of the most critical components in relation to helping people find jobs,” Massengill says. “Our vision is educated people with good jobs living in a great place. To do that takes all hands on deck. Thrive 2055 has an opportunity to convene these conversations. Our job is to identify the gaps, see where our region is trending, and identify how we can create a positive change.”
Dr. Flora Tydings, president of Chattanooga State Community College, says Chattanooga State is committed to scanning the environment to find what fields need employable talent and aligning its curriculum with available jobs. “When students come to Chattanooga State, we want to help them understand what jobs are available in our community, both the fields that are needed and what the work environment will be like for them,” says Dr. Tydings. “We really want them to understand that college is not a career in itself. College is a place where you come to get a good career.”
Another entity opening communication lines is the Southeast Tennessee STEM Innovation Hub, a cooperative effort between regional K-12 schools, colleges, and other partners, to help prepare students for careers in STEM occupations (science, technology, engineering, and math). Every year, its year-long professional development program educates 30 teachers from Southeast Tennessee on the needs of local industries, and gives them training and tools to integrate STEM into their classrooms. Called the STEM Teaching Fellows, the program is now in its fourth year.
Kate Skonberg is STEM programs associate at the Public Education Foundation, which acts as the managing partner for the Hub. “We know from research that we will have more than 100,000 STEM jobs in Tennessee by 2018,” she says. “We see that as an opportunity for us to connect our educators with businesses and industries in the Chattanooga area to share best practices.”
As part of the program, fellows job shadow at companies like Roper, Volkswagen, BASF, and DuPont. “This gives them a chance to go back to their schools and say, ‘this is what they need,’ and begin to integrate those things into the classroom,” Skonberg says. “Our goal is to help teachers develop relevant lessons and curriculum, so that when their students leave school, they are digitally literate and primed to pursue those jobs of the future.”
4 PROVIDING JOB-DRIVEN EXPERIENCE Leaders feel offering more opportunities for on-site learning experiences is another way to close the gap between workforce skills and industry needs. Giving students a chance to gain real-world experience before they ever enter the job market can be key to their success.
At UTC, a campus-wide program called ThinkAchieve gives students more learning opportunities in the community. “By 2018, our goal is for every graduating student to have had some type of experiential learning experience, whether it be with a company, government organization, or nonprofit,” says Dr. Steven Angle, chancellor at UTC.
He says the university is particularly eager to connect students to real-life work within our city’s innovation sector. “Not only is it great to see our students engage in that environment as part of their education, but it also opens businesses’ eyes to the creative young people we have on our campus who have so much to contribute.”
UTC is also looking to boost their internship program offerings. A new director of community partnerships, Ann Yoachim, was hired just this summer to act as the university’s front door to the community.
“We’re increasing our individual relationships with employers in our area, but we are also looking at how we might develop a clearing house of all internships and apprenticeship opportunities within the region,” Dr. Angle says. “We are in the early stages but the goal is to collaborate with a myriad of partners on connecting our students to practical opportunities at local companies and organizations.”
5 CREATING NEW CAREER PATHWAYS THROUGH ACCELERATED TRAINING Local leaders are also working on ways to get job seekers, particularly working adults with some existing educational attainment, on faster tracks to employment.
This year, Chattanooga was selected to join 20 other communities across the U.S. in the White House-backed TechHire initiative. TechHire is a call to action for municipal leaders, educators, and employers to rapidly provide Americans with the skills needed to fill tech-
nology jobs through universities, community colleges, and non-traditional approaches. A total of $100 million dollars in federal grant competition money will support innovative approaches to training and employing working-age adults.
Nick Wilkinson, Chattanooga’s deputy administrator of economic development, oversees the initiative here in our city.
“Local employers have open, available IT positions all the time,” he says. “TechHire wants to make sure there is some sort of pathway or training program to fill them. So we are partnering with employers to find out what they need, and then communicating these needs to various partners who can provide the education and training necessary to fill them.”
Wilkinson says many of the area’s traditional education providers – like UTC and Chattanooga State – have already signed up to offer accelerated models or streamlined curriculums.
“I think we have a tremendous opportunity to retrain people who have been in the workforce, but are looking for a new challenge or a way to use their skill sets in a different area,” says Dr. Angle. “This type of training could be just what they need to open the door to a completely new set of opportunities.”
Dr. Tydings says Chattanooga State is working on rolling out prior learning assessments for students, so that those who come to the table with existing skill sets will not need to repeat coursework. “If we can assess what somebody has when they walk in the door, we can help get them through a program at a faster pace.”
TechHire also hopes to work with employers and third-party organizations to provide 12- to 16-week training “boot camps.” Wilkinson adds, “We have a few local groups as well as some non-local groups interested in providing accelerated training programs in the Chattanooga market. Typically, these will provide a very specific, highly customized training that, at the end, could allow participants to procure really high paying jobs pretty immediately.”
CHATTANOOGA WORKFORCE MOVING FORWARD What does the future hold? In a certain sense, having jobs to fill isn’t the worst problem to have. In fact, it reflects progress. “Go back to Chattanooga 20 years ago and we were having the opposite conversation. It was, ‘How do we create more jobs?’” says Bradham. “Now that we have jobs, the question has become: ‘how do we make sure people are ready to fill them?’”
And the clear expectation is there will be plenty more to fill five and 10 years from now.
For that reason, the work being done by community leaders and educators today is a critical component in reinvigorating our current workforce and creating the molds of tomorrow’s workers. Ultimately, Chattanooga’s workforce is what will continue to push our city’s economy into a favorable outlook. Fortunately, community leaders are working tirelessly to develop a workforce that not only helps our current businesses thrive, but one that is highly sought-after and a reason for additional businesses (and jobs) to continue looking Chattanooga’s way.