Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Plant director Corey Jahn, left, speaks with Gov. Bill Lee as he tours Gestamp Inc. on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. This was Gov. Lee's first visit to Chattanoga as Governor of Tennessee.

Low unemployment is good economic news, but it's not the whole story.

To move communities forward, people need to be able to find jobs that can sustain families, grow careers and put financial stability within reach, says Lori Quillen, a program manager with the Benwood Foundation.

"There are plenty of programs to help people find jobs, but they are not always able to support a family," Quillen says. "We need to do a better job as a community, broadly making that distinction and celebrating employers who work toward that."

Local schools, industry, government, philanthropic and nonprofit organizations are organizing around efforts to expand access to training, skill development and living-wage employment. Workforce development has typically been something of a piecemeal prospect, with multiple entities pushing different efforts and using different funding resources, but collaboration is gaining steam across these priorities, says Molly Blankenship, the vice president of talent initiatives for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and the executive director of Chattanooga 2.0.

"I think one of the intents is to put some bones around this effort for the community, to put some structure around it," she says. "We're working to ensure we're all rowing in the same direction."

Chattanooga State Community College launched a registered apprenticeship program in 2018, and kicked off its Skill Up workforce training program in 2019. Hamilton County Schools have drawn national attention for a work-based learning partnership with manufacturer Gestamp and 28 industry-themed Future Ready Institutes. The city of Chattanooga stood up an Office of Workforce Development in 2018 to connect job-seekers to opportunities. The Chamber of Commerce unveiled its Chattanooga Climbs initiative in 2019, aimed at boosting average annual pay and attracting more investment to the Scenic City.

"In a low unemployment environment, we are all asked to be creative and innovative, and the benefit of that is we have to think intentionally about how we connect with people and give them access to the workforce," Blankenship says. "There's a common thread in this work in that we're all trying to figure out how we align to support the community."

Unemployment near historic lows

Metro Chattanooga ended 2019 with a jobless rate of 3.3%, which was below the U.S. jobless rate of 3.4%. But the local unemployment rate was still higher than the year before, when the 6-county Chattanooga metro area ended 2018 with unemployment at 3.1%. Chattanooga employers added a net 6,753 jobs during 2019, according Tennessee’s Labor Department.

Efforts to skill up and employ more people also need the support of employers to be successful, Blankenship says. Across these efforts, employers are integral.

"It's important that these programs are crafted and driven by employers," she says. "As folks working in this space, we need to be crafting solutions based on what employers need."

And what they need is changing, says Megan King, the president and CEO of the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association.

"Manufacturing isn't what it was 10 or 20 years ago," she says. "There are some highly technology-driven careers in manufacturing."

Robin Nunley, a workforce development specialist at Chattanooga Bakery, says the company is supporting Chattanooga State's new Skill Up and apprenticeship programs in part because they need to be creative and proactive in recruiting talent in a tight labor market.

"It's a good problem to have, and it really challenges us as employers to focus not only on recruitment but retention," Nunley says. "When we hire qualified candidates, that increases their probability of success with us."

The nonprofit Benwood Foundation is a key supporter of multiple workforce development initiatives, but the work is about more than pure philanthropy, Quillen says.

"This is not charity," she says. "This is an economic imperative."