Chattanooga selected for $1.6 million grant to expand apprenticeship programs

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Audience members listen to opening remarks. Hamilton County business leaders and officials gathered at Unum on Wednesday, November 16, 2022 to formally establish Hamilton County-Chattanooga as one of only five Apprenticeship Innovation Districts (AID) in the country.

Chattanooga is one of five communities in the nation that will serve as an apprenticeship opportunity hub, or what’s called an Apprentice Innovation District, aimed at youth and adults.

Selected by BuildWithin, a software company and national apprenticeship intermediary approved by the U.S. Department of Labor, the Chattanooga area will see an infusion of $1.6 million over the next four years to help local businesses create and expand registered apprenticeship and youth apprenticeship programs.

A registered apprenticeship is a state-approved career pathway by which employers can develop and prepare their future workforce through on-the-job, paid training and education.

BuildWithin officials, alongside county, city and local business leaders, formally announced the program Wednesday during a panel discussion at Unum, a Chattanooga-based insurance company.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga-based Unum boosts profits in the third quarter, sees continued improvement ahead)

“My greatest hope for how this affects people of all age groups in our community is that it democratizes the opportunity to get a great career,” Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp said at the event.

Local organizations Chattanooga 2.0 and the Benwood Foundation, with support from the county, city and Hamilton County Schools, will facilitate the expansion of new programs.

And BuildWithin will provide the software to do so. The company has designed programs to help businesses develop new apprenticeship programs for 14 high-demand careers, including front-end development, data analysis, digital marketing, videography and cloud support.

One of the primary goals for Chattanooga as an Apprentice Innovation District is to create 100 new registered apprenticeship programs over the course of the four-year grant.

It’s about providing more opportunities, Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson said at the Wednesday event.

“We’ve got 45,000 students that we believe if we give them access to opportunities, that we can change outcomes for not only our kids and for our communities,” Robertson said. “By expanding access to youth apprenticeships, we’re going to be creating opportunities that can change the trajectory of entire families.”

(READ MORE: Bottler partners with Hamilton County Schools to rebrand future-ready business institute)

Michelle Rhee, co-founder of BuildWithin, spoke on the importance of skills training.

“The reality in this country today is that every year about 11 million jobs go unfilled because employers are saying they can’t find the skilled workforce that they need to fill those mission-critical jobs,” Rhee said. “The question is, how do you bridge that gap? How do you connect those two things together? And apprenticeships are an amazing way to do that.”

Apprenticeships offer an alternative career path for those who can’t afford a traditional four-year degree, Rhee said.

“An apprentice has a full-time job from day one with a salary and with benefits,” Rhee said.

Panelists, including officials from EPB, the Tennesee Valley Authority, Unum and the ChaTech Council, said employers are more willing to consider individuals with nontraditional experience.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Schools partners with Novonix to launch new battery program)

“Employers are starting to look beyond the traditional recruiting pathways,” said Walton Robinson, executive director of ChaTech. “They’re at a point where they’re more willing than they probably have been to embrace an apprenticeship model. And there’s a practical part of that, and it has to do with the cost of recruiting.”

There are 25 active apprenticeship programs in Hamilton County at organizations including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Gestamp and EPB, as well as others sponsored by Chattanooga State Community College.

Chattanooga was the first Apprentice Innovation District to be announced, and others will be revealed later this week.

Businesses and individuals interested in apprenticeships can email Chattanooga 2.0 at

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.