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Howard High School educators tour the Life Force helipad at Erlanger Hospital last June in preparation for the launch of the Future Ready Institute at the high school last fall. / Staff File Photo by Doug Strickland

These are good times for Tennessee's economy, and Hamilton County is a key contributor to the state's growth and prosperity.

Following the difficult days of the Great Recession, our community has emerged stronger than ever. New jobs are opening, and Chattanooga has earned international attention for efforts to support business development and spark innovation. Additionally, our community has taken great steps to invest in education to help prepare today's students for future success. However, despite recent progress, significant challenges remain.

Fewer than half of Hamilton County residents hold an educational credential beyond a high school diploma. While there has been improvement in recent years, projections show that more than 80 percent of the jobs in our area require a technical certificate or college degree — meaning we face significant shortage of qualified workers.

This reality underscores the importance of ensuring K-12 students can earn a high-quality education that aligns with the postsecondary pathways necessary to compete for the in-demand jobs of today, as well as the in-demand jobs of tomorrow.

The Tennessee Promise program and Tennessee Reconnect enable nearly every Tennessean to pursue a technical certificate or community college degree free from tuition. But the costs of housing, transportation, books and unexpected expenses too often delay students' progress and, in some cases, force students to quit pursuing higher education.

Without significant improvement in degree completion, too many of today's young people will be shut out future job opportunities in our region. This reality is reflected in a new State of Higher Education in Tennessee report released by postsecondary advocacy organization Complete Tennessee. The report calls on colleges to set annual targets for increasing graduation rates and narrowing achievement gaps that affect students of color and students from disadvantaged communities. Those measures for our local institutions should be ambitious to help meet Hamilton County's urgent need for a better-prepared workforce.

Improving college outcomes requires action for our K-12 students as well. Through partnerships with leading local employers, 13 Hamilton County high schools now offer 27 Future Ready Institutes. Those Institutes help engage students in problem-based learning opportunities, encourage direct collaboration with area businesses, and raise awareness of available industry certifications and college credit courses.

In addition, the STEP-UP program places more than 100 Hamilton County students into summer positions that enable them to earn wages while learning valuable workplace skills.

Early career preparation and exploration programs are particularly important gateways to opportunity for students from low-income homes. Ultimately, building a stronger foundation for our local economy should also bring greater equity to our community. About 20 percent of children in Hamilton County live in poverty, but we now know higher education is the surest way to break the cycle of poverty.

We have a strong community and live in a great state. However, we must confront the lingering equity challenges in our schools, colleges and economy if we want to support continued prosperity in our region. Doing so requires staunch collaboration and commitment to achieve shared goals. We've already shown this is possible. Now is the time to accelerate our efforts. Our future depends on it.

Jared Bigham is senior adviser on Workforce and Rural Initiatives at the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He was previously executive director of Chattanooga 2.0.

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