Tight labor market highlights skills gap, wage obstacles in South

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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Education, jobs, saving access to care: Governor candidates pitch strategies for sustaining rural Tennessee

Four of the state’s six leading gubernatorial hopefuls met in Jackson to pitch their strategies for boosting and sustaining life in rural Tennessee.

Two Democrats and two Republicans fielded questions at Lane College about agriculture, infrastructure, education and the economy.

It was the first gubernatorial forum in Jackson in recent memory, said Julie Daniels, spokesperson for the Jackson Chamber of Commerce.

Health care wasn’t a specified topic, but the hot button issue — several small town hospitals have shuttered and closed in parts of West Tennessee — was threaded throughout the 90-minute forum.

» Dig In:  Tennessee’s gubernatorial hopefuls received 7 health care questions. Some answered.

Just over 1.5 million people live in rural counties — a population that’s grown about 350,000 since 1980, per the United States Department of Agriculture. In the same time period, those living in urban counties has increased by 1.67 million.

The candidates in attendance (see list below) talked broadly about how they would increase the chances for opportunity and prosperity in some of the state’s most distressed areas.

  • Democrat Karl Dean, a former Nashville mayor;
  • Democrat House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh;
  • Republican Randy Boyd, former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development; and
  • Republican Bill Lee, a Williamson County businessman who is chairman of Lee Company

Neither Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, nor U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., who are both running for the Republican nomination were in attendance.

People who live in rural areas are more likely to be older, have less education and have higher rates of chronic disease than peers in metro areas, according to the Sycamore Institute.

The candidates want to tackle a wide variety of problems ranging from teacher retention and jobs to broadband and workforce development through post-secondary education.

A round-up of some issues and thoughts from candidates follows, although not all candidates were asked the same questions.

First priority upon taking office:

Vacant mega-site in West Tennessee:

Boyd: First job is to land a tenant. He defended the mega-site, which Fitzhugh said had lost some of its polish because it’s been vacant for so long, saying he doesn’t “believe the glow has worn off one bit.”

Dean: He’d hire a rural economic advisor — “someone to get up every day and go to bed every night thinking about it.”

Fitzhugh: “If you elect me, I’ll be your rural economic developer.”

Lee: The site wasn’t ready when it was marketed. He wants to approach government projects the same as private sector does, knowing on the front end when the project will start and be completed.


Boyd: Wants to establish a “chief epidemic officer” to tackle the opioid abuse problem and work on getting people who need treatment out of jails and into other places.

Dean: Mentioned broadband frequently, linking it to health care, education, jobs and making sure people want to stay in rural areas.

Fitzhugh: Tennessee needs to be prepared for high speed rail across the state.

Lee: Wants Tennessee to lead in agriculture technology and be a leader in the emerging food industry.

Last question of the night, how do all the disparate topics connect?

Boyd: “I want to make Tennessee a state of opportunity for everybody.” Education and “great quality jobs” for everyone, not leaving rural areas or inner cities behind.

Dean: “I think it’s about the future. It’s about hope… “Whether it’s rural poverty or urban poverty we’re not going to ignore it.” He wants to address all the needs including education, health care, jobs.

Fitzhugh: “It’s people first. My motto has been people matter; progress for all. Tennessee always.” He wants good health care, good education and a good place to live for everyone.

Lee: “They are all connected because they impact every single person in the state.” He has a “desire to change” life for people in urban centers, rural areas and suburbs.

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