By Dave Ongie
Governor Bill Lee arrived at the ETSU Martin Center for the Performing Arts last week to hear an update on progress made by the Employment First Task Force, a group formed by executive order back in 2013 to help provide employment opportunities for those with intellectual disabilities.
“I do believe Tennessee is showing other states how to do this,” Lee said following a briefing by the taskforce. “We have a lot of work yet to do and we’re continuing to find ways to improve what we do.”
Lee was encouraged with what he heard last Thursday, but increasing employment opportunities for those with intellectual disabilities is obviously just one piece of an employment puzzle that has become extremely complex since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tennessee employers have hardly been immune to the national trend of jobs remaining unfilled in the wake of the pandemic.
“It’s one of the greatest challenges we have in this country,” Lee said. “It’s one of the reasons we’ve chosen to take every avenue we can to get people back into the workforce. We certainly don’t need to be paying people to stay out of the workforce, but more than that, we need to be equipping people with skills that will allow them to enter the workforce in a new way.”
At the beginning of July, Lee attempted to coax Tennesseans back into the workforce by eliminating the extra federal unemployment benefits many believed were keeping potential workers at home. Lee said he believes the move led to about 30,000 job openings being filled in the state, but eliminating the federal portion of unemployment benefits wasn’t a cure-all.
“We know that’s the right thing to do for our economy and for the folks in our state, but that leaves a lot of job openings yet,” Lee said. “We still have the leftover challenges in our state from the pandemic. The hospitality and tourism industry, particularly in our big cities, took a hard hit. Convention traffic has not fully come back.”
Given the complexity of the employment conundrum, it stands to reason that the multifaceted problem will require a complex solution. To that end, Lee said the state government is committed to doing what is necessary to bolster the state’s workforce and eliminate hurdles that are keeping folks from returning to the workforce.
Again, opening doors for people with intellectual disabilities to earn a living and live more independently is a piece of that puzzle, as are efforts to work with the department of corrections to ensure people reentering society following incarceration do so with a skillset that will allow them to become a meaningful part of the workforce.
“We’ve got to do everything we can to equip folks to fill jobs,” Lee said. “We have a half-a-million jobs in this state that are unfilled right now. We’ve got to equip folks to be able to fill those positions.”
On the positive side, Lee said investments his administration has made in vocational and technical education continue to bear fruit. “We see significant, major global companies coming to Tennessee because they see a commitment to workforce.”
The latest is Ford Motor Company, which is making a $5.6 billion investment at a megasite in west Tennessee that is expected to generate 27,000 new jobs, according to analysis from the Center for Economic Research, a division of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. Lee said the move cements Tennessee’s position as a leader in the automotive manufacturing, and there is evidence to back that up. Nearly 140,000 Tennesseans are employed by four different automobile manufacturers and 920 automotive suppliers operating in the state.
Despite the fact Ford is locating in west Tennessee, Lee said he expects the arrival of the auto giant to create a positive ripple effect that will eventually be felt in all 95 counties. In the meantime, Lee is focused on getting the pieces in place to remedy the current employee shortage impacting virtually every sector of the economy.
“There are still large gaps in the workforce that have left folks without work, but we’re encouraged as the unemployment rate continues to drop and we continue to skill people up,” Lee said.