With unemployment rates above ten percent across the region, families and businesses in West Tennessee are especially hard hit by the economic downturn. Last Thursday, business and other community leaders met federal, state and local economic development officials at the University of Tennessee Extension Experiment Station in Jackson to discuss what can be done to speed recovery and create long-term economic stability across the state.
Mark Chandler of the Tennessee Career Center in Jackson presented an overview of economic conditions. Of the 13 Local Workforce Investment Areas in Tennessee, the three that cover rural West Tennessee continue to have the highest average unemployment rates, in excess of 13 percent. Though most sectors have been impacted by the downturn, manufacturing, construction and trade, transportation and utilities have all suffered declines of 23 percent or more during the last year. The one bright spot has been educational and health services, which increased by 6.9 percent statewide.
Dr. Jack Laser of Jackson State Community College then presented an overview of business development opportunities for which West Tennessee is geographically or otherwise well positioned to take advantage. The discussion that followed built on his foundation citing the region’s proximity a large number investments being made in major new auto manufacturing plants. Goodyear, Unilever, Carlisle, Proctor and Gamble, and several locally owned food production companies are already expanding or rehiring. State Economic and community Development Assistant Commissioner Rick Meredith made the point that in Tennessee 92 percent of jobs are with small businesses.
With a number of new “green” companies having recently announced expansion in Tennessee, their was a lively discussion about where USDA and local leaders can help develop the regional workforce to create a business environment that attracts and nurtures these “jobs of the future.” In addition to the Mega-Site and Solar Farm under development in Haywood County, Paul Van Hoesen of cTechnology.com explained initiatives helping connect rural workers with technology jobs. The company’s first “Digital-Factory,” shared space with the resources needed to support technology workers, just opened in Perry County and has already started connecting workers with skilled jobs across the country.
UT Martin’s Chancellor Tom Rakes also announced the university is launching a new initiative to ensure that every graduate, regardless of major, meets an advanced standard of technological literacy.
The event was co-hosted by USDA Rural Development State Director Bobby Goode and USDA Farm Service Agency State Exec. Director Gene Davidson. The standing room only crowd included State commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development James Neeley, representatives for the state’s congressional delegation, business owners, private and non-profit lenders, farmers, regional economic developers, chamber leaders and nine county and city Mayors. State legislators were unable to attend due to the special session underway in Nashville, but several have asked for a copy of the report to be written summarizing the input from participants.
Input is still being received in writing from attendees and many who were not able to attend. The results will be compiled and made available for everyone interested online next week at www.rurdev.usda/TN.
To learn more, go to the Rural Development and FSA Job Roundtables Schedule, and the News Release, “USDA to Host Roundtables on Jobs, Economic Growth”