Don't be fooled by Hamilton County's impressive jobs and growth numbers — 10,985 new jobs and $3.2 billion in new investments over the past five years.
We say don't be fooled — perhaps lulled is a better descriptor — because a look behind the curtain tells us it's a precarious success story, no matter what we and our elected officials may want to believe.
The not-so-silver lining behind our historically low local jobless rate is the dark before tomorrow's sunrise. After all, what happens to today's jobs bonanza as aging baby boomers continue to retire and as demand for labor and technology skills increase in most jobs?
The answer we want to tell ourselves is that our children will take those jobs and soar. But the reality is that we're already seeing the spectre of an uncertain future as our employers — old and new — tell Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and state economic development leaders that their biggest challenge is getting enough skilled workers and that today's graduates are not coming to them jobs-ready.
We've already seen state officials rise to combat this problem with former Gov. Bill Haslam's creation of Tennessee's "Drive to 55" program, which aims to increase the percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025.
Locally we're beginning to see it play out with the Hamilton County Department of Education's partnership with 90-plus businesses to form Future Ready Institutes in our local public high schools. For example, this partnership adds curriculum and institutes for advanced manufacturing and mechatronics at Ooltewah and Central high schools, insurance and health technology academies at Red Bank and Soddy-Daisy highs and health care innovation training at The Howard School.
It's a wonderful blueprint and we're proud of it.
But the framework — and hard work — of building upon our region's people and workforce has just begun.
With that in mind, the Chattanooga chamber this weekend announced a plan called Chattanooga Climbs.
Chattanooga Climbs builds on the findings of Chattanooga 2.0, as well as a community input and analysis known as Velocity 2040. The sum of those parts, now packaged in a five-year strategy, gives us lofty but achievable goals to grow, recruit and diversify our talent, entrepreneurs and community assets — the things we will need in the changing 21st century economy.
In five years, the Chamber's new campaign seeks to generate locally:
* $1 billion in new capital investment
* $500 million in new payroll
* $55,000 as an average local wage — up from the the fourth quarter 2018 average of $52,065
* 200 employers participating in public school Future Ready institutes, up from just over 90
* 1,000 employees attending diversity and inclusion training programs
* 500 student apprentices, up from 28
* 100 graduates from the INCubator at the Hamilton County Business Development Center.
Embedded within those five-year goals are some bold ideas — a health sciences center at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to promote health care and bio-science research, a locally focused venture capital fund of up to $20 million to finance more startups, a community and workforce re-entry training program for the more than 500 people yearly leaving jail, improved training for people in high-unemployment areas, as well as the reclamation of 500 acres in local brownfield sites to ready them for new business development.
It's a big bite, but it makes clear why we can't be lulled into complacence. We can't get by just on the strength of yesterday's successes.
It's true that we weathered the Great Recession better than most cities, but we did that thanks to the far-sighted determination largely of the late county Mayor Claude Ramsey, who believed that if we built it, they would come — "they" being Volkswagen, to build on the cleaned up and manufacturing- ready former vacant Superfund site of the Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant.
Now, we have to understand that despite that great stroke of genius and windfall, we have to realize that we are still — even with VW — trailing in recent years' job growth compared with other mid-sized, growth-oriented cities, including Knoxville, Huntsville, and Charleston, South Carolina.
In the 21st century economy, we cannot take anything for granted. Not our location, not our beauty, not our heritage, not our children, not our past successes nor our past shortcomings.
Most certainly, we cannot take for granted our future.