In honor of National Small Business Week, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke convened 18 small business owners and their staffs on Thursday to discuss what successes they have had in the city and what challenges they face.
Funding and incentive programs for businesses
Kiva loan program — an interest-free, crowdfunding loan for startups with loans ranging from $1,000-10,000.
*Information provided by the city of Chattanooga
Those in attendance represented several different industries and included restaurant and child care center owners, manufacturers, tourism professionals and more. While many praised the city for its economic development initiatives and "suite" of grants and loans available for them, many of the business owners cited a shortage of workers and need for more skilled ones as a major hurdle they are currently facing.
Bill Norton, CEO of Metro Services Inc., said Chattanooga used to have a lot of trade schools, but he has trouble finding skilled workers, especially right out of high school. Metro Services specializes in combustion engineering, HVAC services, solar energy services and mechanical contracting services.
"I'd like to see more trades taught in younger ages because when they come out of high school, everybody can't expect to get a Ph.D. or be the CEO of a company...Trying to find somebody with skills and abilities who can do the job out of high school is almost impossible," Norton said.
Berke said the city's piece in solving that problem is matching up businesses with the right institution that can train workers, like connecting business owners with Chattanooga State and its programs.
Hamilton County Department of Education's Future Ready Institutes are also trying to address the problem. Future Ready Institutes challenge the traditional approach to education in high schools by developing career-themed small learning communities. Themes include medicine, robotics, forensic science, engineering, hospitality, technology, business, marketing and more.
A manufacturers forum in Chattanooga on Wednesday also addressed the shortage of skilled workers in some areas. Many industry professionals said they have had to get creative with the unemployment rate at 3.2% in the state.
Employers in metro Chattanooga employed 34,700 workers in manufacturing jobs during March, or more than 13% of all jobs in the six-county area. Nationwide, manufacturing provides 8.5% of all jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Tina Stewart said the same problem exists in early childhood education. Stewart is the co-owner and president of First Step Christian Daycare, which has a location on Glass Street and Chamberlain Avenue in east Chattanooga.
She said a majority of children who are coming out of school now have skills pertaining to computers and automation, but they lack basic skills such as how to sew a button.
"What [Norton] mentioned is really important," she said. "If we could have some kind of initiative to start training people in [east Chattanooga] because they are at risk."
Norton did praise Berke and the city for making early childhood education a priority. The city allocated $800,000 in its 2018-19 budget to develop and assist facilities with training and professional development opportunities and has collaborated with other organizations to help improve early-learning options in the city.
Providing felons and others with a criminal past a second chance was also a main topic among business owners Thursday.
"There are so many people in our community who need second chances," said Steve Talley about the Alton Park area. He owns AB Property Preservation.
Rodney Billups of Herman's Soul Food and Catering said he often calls the Salvation Army for new workers as he sees high turnover in the food industry. Out of the 21 people that Billups employs, 16 came from the Salvation Army.
"Right now is actually a pretty good time to be working on issues related to people who might have some kind of problem in their past, including a criminal conviction " Berke said. "Employers aren't taking a harder look at people than they may have otherwise."
The mayor said that the issue also requires employers to look at their own policies. When the city was asking employers to rethink hiring people with a criminal history, Berke said they had to take a look at the city's own rules on the issue.
A few years ago, the city of Chattanooga had a ban that stated a person with a criminal conviction could not work in city government. The city lifted that ban, and now those with a criminal conviction can apply for jobs that don't require public trust, Berke said.
"For a lot of people — listen they made a mistake, they had some kind of drug conviction eight years ago and they haven't had anything since," Berke said. "For us to not let them work here in Public Works...it wasn't the best thing for our taxpayers."
Contact staff writer Allison Shirk Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org, @AllisonSCollins or 423-757-6651.