In metropolitan Chattanooga, most jobs require some level of college but less than half of all those unemployed have no collegiate training.
• Bachelor's degree - 36.1 percent
• Associate's degree or some college less than bachelor's - 33.8 percent
High school diploma or less - 30.1 percent
Unemployed worker skills
• Bachelor's degree - 12.1 percent
• Associate's degree or some college - 29.8 percent
• High school diploma or less - 57.5 percent
The jobs with the most openings in Chattanooga during January and February, 2012 were:
• Health diagnosing and treating practitioners 1,488
• Computer occupations 1,178
• Motor vehicle operators 1,037
• Supervisors of sales workers 553
• Service sales representatives 476
• Information and record clerks 465
• Engineers 444
• Retail sales workers 366
• Health technologists, technicians 350
• Sales manufacturing representatives 345
Source: Brookings Institute
At age 31, four months after being laid off from his last job, Darrius Cole is starting his career over by going back to school.
The former construction worker from Florence, Ala., is among two dozen students who started a two-year program last week at Chattanooga State Community College to become a nuclear plant operator.
"My last job was as a laborer at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, and I saw there that the people who had the best jobs -- and the ones that seem to always keep their jobs -- are those with the best education," Cole said. "Education seems to be key these days and, even though I don't know many people yet in Chattanooga, I feel like I'm going in the right direction now."
A new employment study by the Brookings Institution underscores Cole's career move. Seven of every 10 new jobs in Chattanooga require more than a high school education, but a majority of unemployed Chattanoogans have never been to college or received any high school certifications, Brookings reports.
In analyzing online job postings for the past six years, Brookings found that more than 36 percent of the available jobs listed in Chattanooga required at least a four-year college degree -- more than three times the share of unemployed Chattanoogans who have such degrees.
Only 30.1 percent of the open jobs listed online in the past six years in Chattanooga required a high school degree or less, Brookings said even though 57.5 percent of those who are unemployed have only a high school diploma or less.
Lack of education
That gap in education and skill levels is hurting the job prospects for many Chattanoogans even as the economy begins to rebound. For all of Chattanooga's success in the past five years landing billion-dollar-plus investments at Volkswagen and Wacker Chemical and smaller additions at Amazon and Alstom Power, the Scenic City still has a relatively less-educated workforce.
"I think the economy in Chattanooga is actually quite strong right now, but the thing that holds us back is simply not having people prepared to go to work in the jobs that are available," said Jim Catanzaro, president of Chattanooga State. "Those students who go through the preparation in one of our applied degrees in the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] disciplines, no matter whether they are 18 or 65, get good jobs when they graduate."
In such programs, Chattanooga State boasts a 94 percent job placement rate, Catanzaro said.
But not enough workers are getting the training needed for today's jobs, Brookings Institution researchers found.
Among the top 100 metropolitan areas in the United States, Chattanooga ranked 82nd in the gap between the skills required to fill available jobs and the skills of the typical unemployed worker.
Chattanooga boasted a better-than-average jobless rate of 8.3 percent in July, or 0.3 percent below the comparable, non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for the country as a whole. Expansions announced this week by Honigsberg & Duvel in Chattanooga, Tennessee Galvanizing in Jasper, Tenn., and Amazon in Chattanooga will add hundreds of more local jobs, but many will require post-secondary training.
Experts warn that even as the local economy improves,job prospects may not get much better for those without the right skills. The mismatch in supply and demand for educated workers adds as much as 2 percent to the jobless rate in some cities, Brookings researchers said.
"Narrowing the education gap is particularly important for improving the long-term health of metropolitan economies," Jonathan Rothwell, senior research associate at the Brookings Institution, writes in a new report on "Education, Job Openings and Unemployment in Metropolitan America."
"The research shows that overall, job openings require more education than all existing jobs and more education than the average worker possesses," he said.
Many of the workers displaced from their jobs during the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009 are having to go back to school to find work.
Karen Haynes, a 55-year-old computer-aided-design instructor who began teaching this fall at Chattanooga State, lost her job three years ago when the building slump cut the workload at local engineering firms.
"In order to be marketable to operate different software, I knew I had to go back to school," she said. "You can't pigeonhole yourself or be too tied to the past."
Rachel Garland, a 20-year-old certified medical assistant at Physicians First in Cleveland, Tenn., quickly realized she would need more than a high school diploma to work beyond her first jobs at a golf shop and as a bartender.
"I didn't have the time or money to go for a four-year degree, but I still wanted to get into a program where I could get a good job with benefits," she said.
The six-month training program at the Academy of Allied Health helped Garland find stable work in the growing health care industry.
"A certified skill in a good field gives you a real advantage," she said.
The Brookings study found the most heavily advertised online job vacancies in Chattanooga were in health care and computer occupations, which typically demand at least a bachelor's degree. But many other high-demand jobs required only two-year degrees or even six-month certifications.
Virginia College, which opened a campus in Chattanooga in 1994 to help provide industry certifications and associate degrees, is among the private, career schools that have sprung up to fill the employment void.
"As a career college, we're very targeted and specific so we're able to provide students employable skills and certifications much more quickly," said Richard Johnson, director of career services and marketing for Virginia College in Chattanooga, which grew to nearly 500 students this fall. "There are a lot of workers who have been displaced during the downturn and they need some short-term training to find work in another field. You can't rely upon one skill for your entire career anymore."