Southeast Tennessee Works

Southeast Tennessee Works


Within the next 10 years America will lose 70 million jobs. That reality keeps Bo Drake up at night. As Vice President for Economic and Workforce Development at Chattanooga State Community College, he knows those jobs will be lost mostly to automation – and that many of the people who will be displaced are hard at work in Southeast Tennessee.

“We have thousands of Chattanoogans going to dead-end, low-wage, no-growth jobs every day,” he laments. “Those jobs are going to disappear. By 2030, machine learning, automation, and AI will do much of that work.”

But there’s something big around the corner, and it gives Drake hope for the morning: in the next 10 years America will also create 130 million jobs. Drake doesn’t know just what those jobs will be – no one does – but he’s dedicated to helping our community be as ready as possible.

Molly Blankenship, Executive Director of Chattanooga 2.0 and Vice President of Talent Initiatives at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, sees things from another perspective. Her efforts focus on growing our economy.

I hear consistently from employers that workforce is their number one challenge,” she says. “Chattanooga and Hamilton County’s economy is growing, but not as fast as we would like it to. To reach our maximum potential, we need unique workforce development approaches to ensure our economy is inclusive. Some pockets of our community are at double-digit unemployment, so there’s a tremendous amount of untapped potential.

Focused on the Future

In 2019 Chattanooga State, the Chattanooga Chamber, and the Hamilton County Department of Education joined forces to create a cross-sector partnership called Southeast Tennessee Works, SETWorks. Together they’re aligning the strengths of their respective organizations to tackle the challenges of a modern economy for the good of everyone in the region.

“We are dedicated to expanding high-quality work-based learning opportunities in Hamilton County,” Blankenship explains. “Specifically apprenticeships and upskilling in a variety of career pathways including business, IT, and high-tech manufacturing.”

Advancing Apprenticeships 

Gone are the days of Benjamin Franklin’s toil as a printer’s apprentice, waiting nine years to earn wages. Modern apprenticeships are developed with employer input and approved by the U.S. Department of Labor, ensuring high quality standards. They’re career-oriented and closely integrate classwork with job experience.

As part of SETWorks, Chattanooga State is carefully creating apprenticeship programs for employers large and small. Most last about two years. All are paid opportunities. 

“There’s a disconnect in our approach to education in America,” Drake says. “I use this metaphor: My sons like to play soccer. Can you imagine if I told them that they have to go to soccer practice for two years before they can actually play a game? But that’s our education model. You have to go to school for two years or longer before you can even try out for the team! Then when you interview to ‘try out,’ the employer wants to know what experience you have. It makes sense to blend the career path and education process.”

Drake has a vision of expanding apprenticeships to high school students by developing an apprenticeship option for each Hamilton County Schools Future Ready Institute. He points out that it’s important to build career pathways and help students explore them.

When students participate in apprenticeships in high school, a portion of their time is spent in traditional course work and another part is with an employer. The student earns debt-free post secondary credit, industry-recognized credentials, on the job experience, a high school diploma – and an hourly wage which can offset the need to work in an unrelated job after school. Especially for students who might otherwise graduate without a career pathway, work-based learning opens the door to economic opportunity. 

Already students and employers are reaping tremendous benefits from the adult and youth apprenticeships at Gestamp. That program is working well enough to receive the attention of Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. When he visited the Gestamp program in February 2019, he remarked, “This is a perfect example…not only of a great job-producing Tennessee-based company, but one that partners in the ways that needs to be done to prepare the workforce of the future.”

“We want to learn and scale,” says Blankenship. “SETWorks will take what’s happening at Gestamp and apply it so any employer can participate in a way that makes sense for them. Larger companies may be able to have 10 apprentices, while a small business may want one or two.”

Upskilling: Lifelong Learning and Earning

Apprenticeships are a good fit for emerging workers who have time to train, but for workers already in the job market, upskilling offers fast access to new skills. Most upskilling programs are very short – just weeks long – and pay a reasonable wage during training.

Drake and Blankenship hypothesize that this approach will evolve into a focus on lifelong learning for workers. “As the economy changes, the existing workforce’s skills need to change as well,” says Drake. “Chattanoogans need skills to be competitive tomorrow and not just today.”

Benwood Foundation partnered with SETWorks to pilot SkillUp, a 12-week program focused on workforce development for manufacturing. Manufacturing partners shared their hiring standards and skills needs, and Chattanooga State created a gold-standard manufacturing curriculum. Community partners helped find low-skills workers interested in advancing their careers.

After six weeks of intense classroom learning the 15 students had collectively earned 56 total certifications, and four people earned the rigorous National Certified Production Technician credential. Each student completed an additional six weeks of on-the-job training with a partner manufacturer. Almost every participant got a new job after the program with more opportunity than they had previously. Furthermore, the turnover rate for the SkillUp workers is far lower than the rate for employees hired through traditional staffing models.

New iterations of SkillUp will be neighborhood-based to alleviate transportation and other identified barriers to success. Additional nonprofit partners will also provide wraparound services for participants as needed.

While the pilot focused on manufacturing, Blankenship points out that regional upskilling and apprenticeship efforts must focus on many career paths.

“Velocity 2040, Chattanooga Climbs, and Chattanooga 2.0 have each identified that our work must make the regional economy more inclusive and accessible to everyone in the community. That’s why we need many different careers included in SETWorks,” she says. “We’re talking about all kinds of jobs: insurance, finance, IT, business. Rapid change is the new normal. Every worker in every industry needs to have concrete skills that they can build and stack on across their career.”

Confidence through Change

SETWorks and the cross-sector support it is gaining helps Drake sleep a little easier. “We have an economic imperative to engage as a community in work like this,” he says. “I’m excited about changing how we think about what we’re doing because it needs to change.”

To learn more, explore the following resources:

Future Ready Institutes in Hamilton County Schools

Apprenticeship Programs through Chattanooga State