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Staff Photo / A vehicle enters the Chattanooga State Community College campus on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have brought a new public awareness to one of Chattanooga's key and growing industries.

With the delivery and costs of shipments now challenged in many industries, the importance of logistics and Chattanooga's "freight alley" took on new urgency Friday in a meeting among education and industry leaders at Chattanooga State Community College.

"Certainly in my lifetime, the term "supply chain" was never the household phrase that it is now, and we're all learning how that affects each of us," Rebecca Ashford, president of Chattanooga State, told a conference Friday on logistics training. "I believe with the ups and downs we have in the supply chain and logistics, we will have a need for a strong workforce in this field for the foreseeable future."

Last year, seven of the 11 fastest-growing companies on the Inc 5000 list in Chattanooga were in the transportation or logistics industry and most are still hiring this year. During a conference of trucking and logistics companies at Chattanooga State on Friday, most businesses said they continue to need more workers than they can hire in the current market.

"I could probably take on 20 more stores right now, but I just don't have enough drivers to serve everyone," said Cedric Hornbuckle, the terminal manager for Eagle Transportation in Chattanooga.

Hornbuckle said he has hired 21 of his last 27 drivers from Chattanooga State's truck driving school, which the college is preparing to double in size to help meet the demand for more drivers.

Chattanooga State has had a truck driving program at its TCAT (Tennessee College of Applied Technology) school for decades capable of graduating about 150 students a year. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, the school had to limit enrollment for health and safety reasons even as the demand for truck drivers rose in the region.

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Staff File Photo by Robin Rudd / Dr. Rebecca Ashford, president of Chattanooga State Technical Community College, speaks to staff members of the Times Free Press in this undated file photo.

Jim Barrott, executive vice president at Chattanooga State, said the college is preparing to double the student capacity of its truck driving program in response to the market demand. Aided by a $12.2 million grant from the state, Chattanooga State plans to relocate and boost its truck driving training program to 300 students a year.

The community college and its trade school are not just focusing on drivers. In a city that has become a hub for freight brokerage, Chattanooga State is also adding a Future Ready Institute on logistics and launching a logistics training program to both prepare students within a few months to take on local jobs at freight brokers or to pursue four-year and advanced degrees in logistics or supply management.

Weston Wamp, a member of the Tennessee Board of Regents who won the Republican nomination last week to run for Hamilton County mayor, said he urged the state to provide additional focus and funding toward logistics to help meet the growing talent needs in Chattanooga. As a transportation hub, Chattanooga is home to two of the nation's biggest long-haul trucking companies — U.S. Xpress Enterprises and Covenant Logistics — as well as the nation's biggest privately owned warehouse company, Kenco.

Over the past two decades, the city has also sprouted more than a dozen freight logistics companies, many of them spinning off of the former Access America Inc., which sold to Coyote Logistics and later UPS.

Wamp, who briefly worked at Access America and helped raise funds for the Lamp Post Group that funded many logistics startup ventures, said Friday he had "a front-row seat to see what the rise of the freight brokerage industry has meant in our community in rebirthing the spirit of entrepreneurship" in attracting jobs and capital to Chattanooga. The emerging jobs in freight brokerage can offer six-figure incomes, but the education needed for such jobs requires a different approach.

"A career in the logistics industry requires a different kind of training," Wamp said.

In response, Chattanooga State Economic Development Vice President Bo Drake said he and other college officials have worked with industry leaders to shape the curriculum on new logistics courses to help in both short-term and degree programs for the trucking, freight brokerage and other logistics businesses.

"This is a great example of the partnerships we form with local industry at Chattanooga State," Drake said in a statement. "For Chattanooga to continue to grow, we have to provide a ready-to-work workforce. We have to answer the challenge of business and industry and this program, with these partners, does just that."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter @dflessner1.

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