Earning While Learning

By Molly Blankenship

In many ways, the work and investment that Chattanoogans have committed to our community in recent decades has improved the lives of many. In the past eight years alone, Chattanooga and Hamilton County have enjoyed the addition of more than 20,000 new jobs. And in April this year, our county’s unemployment rate hit a 10-year low of 2.8 percent.

On top of strong economic indicators, our community frequently enjoys features on national “best of” lists. Whether it’s our outdoor recreation opportunities, food and drink scene, entrepreneurial ecosystem or wage growth rates, the truth is, this mid-sized city we love and call home is punching above its weight. And from my stint working in Washington D.C., I can tell you that the nation is watching to see what we do next.

Sounds great, right? All signs point to a community on the incline, and it’s true – for Chattanooga and Hamilton County, the sky is the limit. But at the same time, we know we are not perfect. No city could be. And today, it’s a fact that not every resident has what they need to thrive.

Recently Gov. Bill Haslam spoke to the Rotary Club of Chattanooga, focusing on education as the antidote to poverty. Basically, the first step to making economic mobility a reality in our communities. I agree, but we have to be clear that our work doesn’t stop at a stronger K-12 system or free college tuition.

If we are to truly solve poverty, if we are to continue to attract high quality jobs, and if we are to live to see shared prosperity be realized in our community, our education and workforce transformation strategy has to be bold and innovative – building on proven success models and right-sizing them for Chattanooga and Hamilton County. It must be nimble – responding to the needs of business at the speed of business. It must be grounded in strong cross-sector partnership and owned by no single organization or person in this community. It must reach and activate people and populations that may traditionally be difficult to reach or face barriers to employment.

The good news? This work has already begun thanks to the Chattanooga 2.0 movement. And recently, I had the pleasure of standing in front of a crowd of Chattanooga movers and shakers and co-announcing a new, critical initiative that will allow us to craft the exact sort of workforce strategy I described above: Tennessee’s first college-sponsored apprenticeship program.

Implemented in partnership with Chattanooga State Community College, these flexible, innovative “earn while you learn” programs can be replicated across industries including advanced manufacturing, healthcare, business and information technology, and more. They can be built to suit business’s unique talent needs, and by providing their participants with a wage while they train, can help eliminate barriers our community members sometimes face to accessing high potential, high quality jobs.

I predict we will look back at this point in time with the same perspective we have now when we reflect on our community’s transformative work of the 1980s – nearly 40 years ago now. New leadership in our institutions and a collaborative Velocity2040 community vision for our future give us a unique vantage point to address today’s challenges – and get ahead of those yet to come. And in a marketplace with fierce competition for highly qualified talent, and predicted job growth, let’s walk arm in arm to equip our residents with the skills and experiences they need to learn, earn and succeed. As my friend Bo Drake with Chattanooga State recently said, “Historic times call for historic measures.” So let’s get to work.

If you are an employer interested in learning how college-sponsored apprenticeships can help you craft a stronger talent pipeline or if you are a resident who wants to earn a salary while you train for a meaningful career, please visit chattanoogastate.edu/apprenticeships.