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Tennessee Reconnect, a statewide adult education initiative, could be a model to boost access to skills training in the South, per a new report that assesses whether the region is primed to close the gap that keeps workers from some well paying jobs despite historically low unemployment rates.

There aren’t enough workers in the South to fill what’s called “middle skill” jobs, which include a variety of jobs such as plumber, electrician, bookkeeper, some medical assistant positions, according to a new report from the National Skills Coalition and the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta and St. Louis.

The open positions have put pressure on state and private sectors to work together to ensure that potential employees have the opportunity to train for and learn the requisite skills. Tennessee’s unemployment rate stood at 3.5 percent in May.

“Employers are having a tough time finding skilled employees right now. They are feeling that squeeze right now. Once again it’s important to look at the causes behind that,” said Melissa Johnson, senior state policy analyst at the coalition and an author of the report.

Johnson said the organization wanted to take advantage of the tight labor market to determine what kinds of skills employers most need as a way to better understand the types of training or policies that need to be put in place.

Yet, a nuance of the tight labor market — and the state’s historically low level of education — is that many people are having to work more than one job to make ends meet. Not everyone feels like it’s a boom period, said Kenyatta Lovett, executive director of Complete Tennessee, a non-profit focused on postsecondary education.

For people with a high school degree or less, pre-recession employment never rebounded.

“The recession has continued and they are not able to take part in what this boom is about,” said Lovett.

In Tennessee, a worker would need to make $15.74 an hour, or work 87 hours a week at minimum wage, to afford a two-bedroom apartment, according to a new analysis by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.  A one-bedroom in Tennessee would require 71 hours a week at the $7.35 minimum wage.

“We have to come to the reality that for a lot of individuals their main job doesn’t pay enough to survive and they have to take a second or third job. In most cases they are working more than one job — that drastically limits your time to achieve more education” said Lovett.

‘The cost of living is creeping up on them’

The skills report tips Tennessee Reconnect, a part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s effort to ensure 55 percent of adults have education beyond high school, as an innovative approach that other states could follow as they try to make sure the workforce has the skills for current and future jobs. Tennessee Reconnect rolls out statewide this fall.

But it’s not clear at this point who will be able to take advantage of the program and what barriers, such as access to transportation or childcare, will impede enrollment, said Johnson.

“What we’re worried about is those below the poverty line may not be as strong in numbers as their peers,” said Lovett.

Lovett and others will be paying attention to enrollment and completion data to understand what makes successful adult education feasible.

“That is the interesting challenge that we have not just in Tennessee but across the nation,” said Lovett. “A lot of individuals would love to (go to school) but the cost of living is creeping up on them so they have to use that time to find other forms of employment to pay the bills.”

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