Washington County’s elected government and education leaders were told Thursday the region’s workforce has not seen the type of growth that is being experienced in other parts of Tennessee.
Jon Smith, who heads East Tennessee State University’s Bureau of Businesses and Economic Research, said the labor market in Johnson City and Kingsport has been declining for nearly a decade.
“Our region has been left out of the explosive gains that have been seen in Knoxville, Nashville and other parts of the state,” Smith told County Commissioners and county Board of Education members at a joint workshop held at the Jonesborough Visitors Center.
Mitch Miller, the chief executive officer of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, said a survey of area manufacturers earlier this year found those companies were having difficulty filling such positions as shop supervisor, machinist and machine operator.
Miller said Gov. Bill Lee’s decision this week to end Tennessee’s participation in expanded federal pandemic unemployment benefits could help address the current workforce shortage, but will not solve all of the region’s employment problems.
“It could be a short-term fix,” he said.
Miller alsonoted that companies looking to locate manufacturing facilities in the region are also looking for a “pipeline” to supply a reliable and educated workforce. He said the region has “some ground to make up” to meet that need.
“People are our new currency,” he said.
The Washington County Commission has included workforce development among the board’s top strategic objectives.
Earlier this year, commissioners promised to lend a hand in helping the county earn the designation of a “work ready community” by voting to allocate up to $3,000 to reimburse the First Tennessee Development District for workforce development testing through the ACT National Career Readiness Certification program.
Lottie Ryans, who is heading that initiative as the director of FTDD’s workforce and literacy programs, said Washington County officials “now have a wonderful opportunity” to address many of the region’s most pressing workforce development needs by turning the former Boones Creek Elementary School into a satellite campus for the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Elizabethton.
She said by making the TCAT-Boones Creek campus a regional dual enrollment center, area high school students would have access to a variety of new programs. The campus would also allow the state to expand the curriculum already offered in Elizabethton.
Ryans said the Boones Creek campus would address a critical backlog in instructional programs for welding, heavy equipment operation and diesel repair.
Crystal Fink, the college, career and technical director of Washington County Schools, told local leaders at Thursday’s workshop that 90% of her school system’s students are involved in at least one career and technical education course.
Also attending Thursday’s workshop were state Reps. Rebecca Alexander, R-Jones-borough, and Tim Hicks, R-Gray.
Hicks passed legislation this year that he told the Press is “a first step” in strengthening interest in career and technical education and vocational programs in Tennessee.
“The time is right, and in six years we could see a big change in CTE in this state,” Hicks said. told local leaders.
His legislation stipulates that schools “shall prepare” students in middle school grades for a career and technical education, or CTE, pathway by introducing them to career exploration opportunities that allow students to explore a wide variety of high-skill, high-wage, or in-demand career fields.