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Photography contributed by Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce / From left are Molly Blankenship, Chattanooga 2.0 and Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce; Michael Mathis, Regions Bank; Christy Gillenwater, Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce; Rebecca Ashford, Chattanooga State Community College.

Chattanooga and Hamilton County have experienced consistent growth in recent decades, with thousands of new jobs and low unemployment rates. Despite this success, many of our neighborhoods continue to struggle with poverty and limited access to opportunity, further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Health and economic disruption have disproportionately impacted East Chattanooga and the Brainerd High School areas.

On Dec. 16, the Chattanooga Chamber Foundation and the Regions Foundation, a nonprofit initiative of Regions Bank, announced ongoing support for a skills and workforce development program that serves job seekers living in parts of Hamilton County hardest hit by unemployment before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Supported by a donation of $90,000 from the Regions Foundation, the Skill Up initiative provides more than 45 people with six weeks of training in advanced manufacturing, customer service and information technology. Participants spend the first three weeks learning new skills, followed by three weeks applying them in on-the-job training.

Skill Up participants receive a training wage, earn industry-recognized credentials and secure full-time employment, typically at a higher sustainable wage than minimum wage. Additional Skill Up initiative partners include Chattanooga State Community College, Hamilton County Schools, the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce and United Way of Greater Chattanooga.

"Skill Up is a great program, and I'm very glad I was introduced to it," says Skill Up participant Melissa Fields. "It's furthered my education in production, which I'm really thankful for."

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Photography contributed by Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce / Skill Up participant Melissa Fields

"Before I entered this class here at Chattanooga State, I didn't even know how to turn a computer on," says Willie George, another program participant. "My instructors helped me — day by day — and now I've successfully completed my OSHA test and passed. Without this program, this wouldn't have been possible. If they can help a person like me, they can help anybody in need."

Local partners work together to enact long-term change

The Regions Foundation is an Alabama-based 501(c)(3) organization funded primarily through Regions Bank contributions. The Foundation advances community initiatives related to financial wellness, education and workforce readiness, and economic and community development.

Michael Mathis, Chattanooga market executive for Regions Bank, emphasized what a difference a program like Skill Up can make in people's lives over a lifetime of employment.

"The Skill Up formula contains vital ingredients for success," Mathis says. "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. Regions is proud to support this program, especially during a time when so many people and employers have experienced challenges amid the pandemic."

Skill Up services reach people who live in areas of high, long-term unemployment with specific outreach to East Chattanooga and the Brainerd High School footprints, aligning with prior investments Regions Bank has made in the same area.

Who generated the idea of expanding Skill Up?

The Skill Up program existed prior to the pandemic as a partnership between the Chattanooga Chamber, Chattanooga State Community College, Hamilton County Schools and community partners. When funding opportunities through the Regions Foundation became available, Chamber team members chose to focus on Skill Up to promote upward mobility for its participants.

"The Skill Up program is exactly what our community needs to increase the earning potential and quality of life of people who are unemployed or underemployed," says Rebecca Ashford, Ed.D., president, Chattanooga State Community College. "In a very short period, participants obtain valuable skills that employers need to meet their workforce demands. That means participants will get good jobs at the end of this short-term training."

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.

"Rebuilding the pathway to economic mobility will be crucial in the year ahead," says Lesley Scearce, president and chief executive officer of 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."

United Way's Building Stable Lives program 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.

To participate in Skill Up, individuals must complete 120 hours of industry-specific training and maintain attendance throughout the duration of the program. Program participants should be eager to learn and engage with course material, and must meet employment requirements for partner employers in order to obtain employment upon completion of the program. Participants must also have a high school diploma or GED.

The Chamber and Chattanooga State remain in contact with Skill Up employer partners to monitor long-term success of the participants.

Anyone interested in completing Skill Up should contact cynthia.brooks@chattanoogastate.edu, and visit chattanoogacalling.com to learn more about ongoing upskilling opportunities, local job postings and more.

Find more information on Skill Up at chattanoogastate.edu, UnitedWayCha.org or ChattanoogaChamber.com.

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