When Bo Drake came to Chattanooga State Community College three years ago to head the college's non-degree workforce development programs, he brought with him an idea to help address one of Chattanooga's biggest challenges from his previous work in Evansville, Indiana.
To help workers upgrade their skills while still making a living, Chattanooga State partnered with the Benwood Foundation, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and local industry in a learning-and-earning program to help workers develop more valuable occupational skills while still being paid for going to school. The Skill Up program provides six weeks of training in nationally recognized credentials for the Manufacturing Skills Standards and students are paid $12.50 an hour while attending the courses.
As graduates, they are equipped to fill many of the high-demand jobs that local businesses are struggling to fill in high-tech manufacturing and IT-related tasks.
"We have thousands of open jobs and this helps us to make clearer pathways for people to connect with those jobs," said Christy Gillenwater, president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.
On Tuesday, the initiative got a boost from the philanthropic arm of a major local bank, the Regions Foundation, which donated $90,000 to help support three more cohorts of 15 students each in the next Skill Up series of courses. The 45 participants in the course will spend the first three weeks learning new skills, followed by three weeks applying them in on-the-job learning.
"By providing classroom training and on-the-job experience in vital industries like manufacturing and IT, Skill Up is not only transforming careers, it's transforming lives," said Michael Mathis, the Chattanooga market executive for Regions Bank. "This program is targeted at some of the areas of our community that have been hit the hardest by this pandemic and it helps provide meaningful careers for many of our local workers."
Gillenwater said the program addresses some of the talent needs and income inequality problems identified through the Velocity2040 community visioning plan and Chattanooga Climbs, the economic and talent development program developed afterward.
"Chattanooga and Hamilton County have enjoyed high levels of growth and prosperity in the past several decades, but not everyone was able to secure a sustainable, good paying job," she said.
Rebecca Ashford, president of Chattanooga State, said college instructors work to train in high-demand skills that can be taught in a number of weeks to aid the skills of workers. In many instances, she said such training will likely lead to participants also seeking degrees in high-demand fields.
"In a very short period, participants obtain valuable skills that employers need to meet their workforce demands," she said.
United Way helps by surveying students to see what barriers they face, then connects participants with existing programs to help them overcome those obstacles – and focus on long-term stability and economic mobility.
For example, Building Stable Lives offers long-term life coaching and support for families with children under 18. The Neediest Cases Fund provides financial assistance to cover bills or expenses, and the Restore Hope Fund serves those experiencing hardship due to COVID-19 as well as tornadoes. The 211 hotline works great for people who might benefit from working with a case manager who can provide referrals to additional resources.
"Rebuilding the pathway to economic mobility will be crucial in the year ahead," said Lesley Scearce, president and chief executive officer, United Way of Greater Chattanooga. "A huge step toward that end is ensuring that our workforce is stable both in the technical skills to do their job and the community resources that can support their household."
- Compiled by Dave Flessner