New city workforce campaign to fight unemployment, underemployment

New city workforce campaign to fight unemployment, underemployment

July 17th, 2018 by Allison Shirk Collins in Local Regional News

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / A view of downtown Chattanooga is seen from the Tower atop the Electric Power Building at the corner of Martin Luther King Blvd. and Market Street. Some of the landmarks include, the James Buidling, the Chattanooga Bank Buidling, First Tennessee, and Sun Trust.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

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› Learn about the workforce initiative at the city’s website at

› The campaign will kick off from noon to 1:30 p.m. Monday at the Southside Community Park at the former Charles A. Bell Elementary School.

Despite some of the lowest unemployment rates in modern history, city officials are launching a new workforce campaign this month that aims to target residents in "disinvested" parts of Chattanooga that still see unemployment rates as high as 15 percent.

The "Workforce Outreach" campaign through the city's Office of Workforce Development will be working with residents and employers over the next year to connect roughly 3,500 people to jobs and training, with city officials stating there are jobs out there but many times residents don't know what is available to them. The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said there is an average of 1.4 jobs for every unemployed person.

"Let's get Chattanooga people filling Chattanooga jobs so our employers don't have to go out of town looking for people to import," said Kent Burnes, a workforce consultant for 28 years who joined the city's Office of Workforce Development in early March. "It's all about jobs and getting people back to work."

Unemployment in Hamilton County was 2.9 percent in May, the most recent month available, and remained below both the state and national jobless rates. Although up slightly from the record low of 2.8 percent in April, unemployment in Hamilton County remains near the lowest levels in modern times after employment in the region has grown at more than twice the rate of the country as a whole, according to state and federal employment reports.

But Burnes said there are still areas of the city fighting high unemployment numbers.

Workforce staffers hope to knock on at least 25,000 doors across Chattanooga neighborhoods in the next year and reach 56,000 homes with direct mailers, Burnes said. From¬†hospitality jobs to a large need at BlueCross BlueShield, Burnes said there's not an employment sector in town that doesn't need workers. Burnes said anybody with a commercial driver's license is currently in huge need and there are opportunities for residents to receive training to be a certified nursing assistant at no cost. Trade jobs — from painting to electrical work — are also greatly needed.

"We have a lot of entry-level jobs available but also employers need people they can ladder up, so it's more than just entry-level," he said.

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development lists 161,329 current job openings and projects, and there will be another 400,000 jobs added to Tennessee's economy in the decade between 2014 and 2024. The number of job openings in the state is more than 40 percent higher than the total number of unemployed people in the state in May. Employer surveys indicate a major barrier to economic growth now is simply finding enough qualified workers.

Over the next year, the city plans to engage employers so there can be a direct pipeline between residents and employers in town. Officials said that many times residents just aren't aware of the opportunities and resources available to them. Some residents will be connected to jobs while others may be looking to further their skills training and education to advance in their current jobs.

"Chattanooga's economy is performing well, but that means we need to be making even more significant investments in reaching out and pulling people up," said Mayor Andy Berke in a statement Tuesday. "A strong workforce is directly linked to so many other positive outcomes in our city. A higher wage allows people to repair their homes, save for their children's education, or simply enjoy more of what our city has to offer."

The public kickoff for the campaign will take place from noon to 1:30 p.m. Monday in the Alton Park neighborhood at the Southside Community Park, the first area to be targeted. Burnes said the initiative will work to connect residents with jobs over the next year across the city through door-to-door canvassing, phone calls to constituents, direct mail and dropboxes in key places in each neighborhood. Burnes said the campaign will include partners such as the American Job Center, the Educational Opportunity Center and neighborhood organizations such as the Bethlehem Center and the Northside Neighborhood House.

Another aspect of the campaign will be finding what barriers residents face to employment, which could include things such as transportation or not adequate child care, Burnes said.

For example, Ooltewah-area businesses have reached out to the city office looking for workers, but transportation could hinder someone from downtown from taking that job. Councilman Erskine Oglesby Jr. represents District 7, which includes downtown, Alton Park, St. Elmo and East Lake.

"It's no secret that while some parts of Chattanooga are doing great, some areas of our city continue to struggle with unemployment, disinvestment and chronic poverty," Oglesby said. "We owe it to ourselves and future generations of Chattanoogans to use our current economic momentum to pull everyone forward so that everyone can benefit from a great job at a good wage."

Contact staff writer Allison Shirk at, @Allison_Shirk or 423-757-6651.