Growth panel cites Chattanooga area 'education crisis': Thrive 2055 picks 4 priorities

Growth panel cites Chattanooga area 'education crisis': Thrive 2055 picks 4 priorities

November 10th, 2013 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Timothy Binford fills out an application during a job fair being held at the Urban League in April.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

ABOUT THRIVE 2055

• 40-year plan

• 3 states

• 16 counties

• 79 municipalities

• 1 million residents

Education efforts in the 16-county Chattanooga region are in crisis and threatening to derail economic gains, says a preliminary report from a group crafting a 40-year growth plan for the area.

"We know there is a serious problem when there are areas in the region that have high unemployment rates and yet good jobs that are going unfilled," said an assessment of education and workforce by the Thrive 2055 initiative.

The Thrive 2055 group has settled on four key areas on which it will focus in the next two years, with educating and better prepping the workforce at the top of the list.

Dan Jacobson, the Chattanooga insurance executive who's heading the Thrive initiative in its second year, said there's almost 100 percent agreement among the 30-person coordinating panel that education and workforce is the No. 1 priority.

"That one means the same thing to everyone across the region," he said in a recent interview.

So urgent are some needs that plans are to get started on individual action items this year rather than wait for a final report at the end of the three-year Thrive 2055 process, Jacobson said, though he didn't immediately identify those.

"We don't know which ones we want to start with but if we start there [on education and the workforce], it makes a lot of sense. We need to flesh that out," the 39-year BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee official said.

The three other priorities the 30-member panel has set are: regional economic competitiveness, the natural environment and coordinating infrastructure in the three-state area.

But Thrive 2055's initial assessment over the past year revealed that while the region has a lot of economic opportunities, educating and readying people for work is "lagging, threatening to weaken the momentum of recent economic development successes."

The assessment said many educators believe the region is working with "an outdated system...and there's a sense among educators that we're falling further and further behind."

The region's educational attainment is behind the country as a whole, with the percent of its adult population with high school and post-secondary degrees lower than the national average. A study by the Ochs Center found that the share of persons completing a high school education varied across the region from 73.4 percent in Walker County to 88.8 pecent in McMinn County.

While hundreds of high-paying jobs in the region are unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants, other four-year graduates are working in low-skilled and under-paid slots, the report said.

How to meet the region's education and workforce needs will take a long-term effort of transformation, and not just reforming the current model, according to the Thrive 2055 report.

However, it cited several potential ways that Thrive can help:

* Have a regional dialogue. While educators recognize the problem, there's little discussion occurring at the regional level. It suggested setting up a regional education consortium.

* Create benchmarks. There's a need for a regional system of data performance tracking.

* Be a voice. The region includes counties over three states and there's a need for a single voice when dealing with outside or higher-level jurisdictions and agencies.

The Thrive 2055 group started its work in 2012 and has a $3 million budget. The area has garnered more than $3 billion of announced investments in the past five years from companies such as as Volkswagen in Chattanooga and Wacker in Charleston, Tenn. The 16-county area is estimated to add nearly 400,000 people by 2055.

That growth will create growing pains and challenges for how residents will be educated, housed and transported in an area where the built environment already is crowding up against its natural beauty.

Bridgett Massengill, Thrive 2055 project manager, said narrowing the focus of the group was surprisingly easy in the first year.

For example, she said, Thrive recently brought together the sheriffs in the 16-county region for the first time ever, and they agreed that education and workforce is the top priority.

"Educating people in the region, that will pull them off the streets," she said the sheriffs believe. "Providing them jobs, that will pull them off the streets."

Massengill said that Dalton, Ga.'s school superintendent is anxious to get his counterparts in the region together to talk about education.

"He's chomping at the bit," she said.

When it comes to the priority of regional economic competitiveness, the early assessment by Thrive 2055 said the most crucial finding so far is the the need for area governments, schools and development groups to coordinate and cooperate better.

"The biggest criticism about our economic development efforts is that they are fragmented and uncoordinated," the report said.

The Thrive assessment also cited a lack of available property for development for big projects that require proximity to interstate highways and water, sewer and power infrastructure. In addition, the report mentioned concerns the Tennessee excise tax is an obstacle for certain companies.

Thrive officials have spent much of the last year gathering baseline data on the region and narrowing their focus to the four priorities. Also, they've tried to reach out to all the counties involved to get buy-in from people in the region, officials said.

"We're taking the cooperative, collaborative approach," the 59-year-old Jacobson said, with the group having engaged about 3,000 people in its process over the past year while its coordinating panel was headed by Brian Anderson, chief executive of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce.

"We've gained a deep understanding of how we're performing as a region," Jacobson said.

To finance the first-ever such study in the region, Chattanooga and Hamilton County is putting in $500,000 each over three years into the effort that's overseen by the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. Another $1 million was committed from philanthropic groups and $600,000 from the private businesses. Officials said they're seeking funds from other communities as well, but there are no commitments as yet.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.