For the fifth consecutive year, Chattanooga and Hamilton County ranked second in Tennessee for job growth.
A study commissioned by the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce projects the job pool to grow four-fold by 2020 – particularly in technology and manufacturing. That’s why educators, business and community leaders are working together to bolster the region’s workforce and ensure students are ready to meet the needs of employers.
Companies such as carpet giant Shaw Industries are working with area schools to introduce students to STEM-related careers. Business-led initiatives, including Chattanooga 2.0, aim to increase the number of career-ready graduates.
“We face a unique challenge in Hamilton County. We have a great deal of living wage employment opportunities, but the majority of Hamilton County residents do not have the post-secondary credentials to access those jobs,” says Jared Bigham, executive director of Chattanooga 2.0. “Chattanooga 2.0 proposes to double the percentage of graduates from Hamilton County public schools that obtain a post-secondary degree or credential, from 30 percent to 60 percent by 2025, and increase the overall percentage of adults in Hamilton County with a college degree or technical training certificate from the current 38 percent to 75 percent by 2025.”
Bigham says the initiative’s leaders began their work by starting conversations between the school district, local business leaders and the area’s colleges and universities to identify skills gaps. The group also worked with educators and business partners to provide workforce training for residents looking to advance their careers.
“We wanted the community to feel ownership, develop strategies, and lead this movement, which means it takes grassroots leadership,” Bigham says. “This is generational work, and to solve this problem, we choose to focus on the cradle-to-career continuum and to proactively face this challenge.”
An advantage, says Bigham, is that some of the needed work has already been going on through programs such as STEP-UP Chattanooga from the Public Education Foundation, which connects businesses with high school interns, literacy initiatives from the Hamilton County Department of Education and programs at area colleges that provide credentialing of high school students before they graduate.
Workforce Training in Chattanooga
Indeed, the region’s community and technical colleges, which include Chattanooga State Community College, Northwestern Technical College in Walker County, Ga., and Northeast Alabama Community College in DeKalb County, Ala., are vital to workforce development efforts. In addition to a dual enrollment partnership with area high schools, which allows students to earn college credit while in high school or even simultaneously earn a high school diploma and associate’s degree, Chattanooga State partners with top employers, such as Volkswagen, to develop academic and training programs that arm students with high-demand skills.
For its part, Northeast Alabama Community College in Rainsville, offers programs in such high-demand fields as industrial maintenance, welding and industrial electronics. The college plans its curriculum by analyzing regional workforce needs with input from industry leaders, says David Campbell, president.
“We work with local economic development organizations to provide employee training, and workshops are held for employee training on campus in facilities specifically built to provide these services,” Campbell says. “Training is also done through apprenticeship programs that we maintain with local industry.”
One of the college’s most recent accomplishments is the construction of an $11.5 million STEM Center. The school hosts summer camps for middle and high schoolers in robotics and 3D printing technology as well as a ‘Manufacturing U’ camp just for girls.
“It’s important that we introduce students early to careers in technical fields,” Campbell says. “That’s why the college co-sponsors an annual Career Day and produces a Career Viewbook that provides information about specific jobs and the skills required to work them. We also operate a career lab for students and offer dual enrollment courses at area high schools.”