Mayors call for continued workforce development

Andy Berke speaks at the Mayors' breakfast.

Workforce development concerns took center stage during the annual mayors business breakfast on Wednesday.

"Our biggest threat continues to be our workers," Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said, citing the need for initiatives like Chattanooga 2.0, which aims to improve education and prepare citizens for the workforce.

As part of those efforts, Berke called attention to the city's Office of Early Learning, which seeks to bridge the gap for families earning too much for government assistance but not enough to readily afford quality early learning opportunities for their children.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who also spoke to the room full of business and community leaders, agreed with the need to support workforce development.

"It is incumbent upon all of us to make that happen," Coppinger said.

Coppinger praised Hamilton County Schools for serving at the core of all workforce development.

Hamilton County is committed to public education and has put 61 percent of its overall budget to supporting it, Coppinger said. In all, the county allocated $417 million the school system's operating budget and another $100 million to build new schools and expand existing schools, he said.

"There's nothing that we do in Hamilton County government that is more important to this community than public education," Coppinger said.

Both mayors underscored the importance of education in growing the local economy at last year's breakfast.

David Altig, executive vice president and director of research for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, told the audience tax reform is needed to make the most of education and workforce development programs.

While the nation's lowest wealth groups are technically taxed the least, they actually pay very high rates when it comes to earning and investing more money due to loss of benefits. He said it is not unusual for them to see tax rates ranging between 50-90 percent.

"We are taxing the lowest wealth groups almost the same as the highest wealth groups at the margin where decisions to invest, to save, to work, happen," Altig said. "What workforce development program, what educational opportunity, what can overcome that and get that person to work?"

If we really care about income inequality, lawmakers need to grapple the core problem by providing tax reform that provides incentives to work and save, he said.

"All the things that I hear the mayors caring about - all the things I hear you caring about - face an uphill battle until the policy community really begins to confront this head on," Altig said.

Despite the challenge of ensuring Chattanooga's workforce is job-ready, Berke said the city has reason to feel upbeat.

"You know the feel even you don't know the numbers," Berke said, citing a strong and diverse economy boosted by growing wages.

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or pleach@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.