Photo above: Mayors Dan Eldridge of Washington County and Richard Venable of Sullivan County announce the eight-county Work Ready Community effort at the headquarters of the First Tennessee Development District. Photo by Scott Robertson
By Scott Robertson
In a moment months in the making, the mayors of Washington and Sullivan counties stood together in the First Tennessee Development District rose garden Oct. 3 to announce their counties would join six other Northeast Tennessee counties in working to attain ACT Work Ready Community designation. The event was hailed as a step forward for regional employers, members of the workforce and economic development efforts.
Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge and Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable were joined by education, government and business leaders from across the region to explain the benefits of working together to achieve the designation.
The Work Ready Community designation is gained by communities when their workforce – including students just entering the workforce and existing workers transitioning from one position to another – earn National Career Readiness Certificates, or NCRCs, issued by the organization that also administers ACT testing. “This certification validates an individual’s skills and qualifications for the workforce,” Eldridge said, noting that NCRCs are recognized by businesses nationally.
Prevalence of that certification is one of the benchmarks existing companies use to determine whether to move into a market, Eldridge said. “Site Selector magazine, a highly influential industry journal now uses NCRC completions in their community assessments as they rank areas to recommend as the best places to do business and where businesses should consider locating…If a prospect isn’t confident that we have a qualified workforce and a development pipeline to provide employees in the future, they won’t choose Northeast Tennessee to invest their capital, create jobs and do business. It’s just that simple.”
Sullivan County is a year ahead of the other seven counties in the region, having already completed the four “academies” that teach communities how to grow the program and that coincide with the setting of goals for each county.
The academies also set goals each county must meet to achieve levels of Workforce Readiness. Sullivan County already knows it needs 82 companies to support the initiative. Clay Walker, CEO of NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership said in mid-October the county currently had around 30 on board. “We certainly encourage businesses to support this endeavor,” Walker said. “Businesses do not have to commit to using NCRCs for their support to count. They only have to state their support for the program.”
Venable said businesses in his county are eager to see NCRCs become part of the local landscape, as they identify stronger potential job candidates, making staffing easier. “Eastman Chemical has successfully used NCRCs for many years. They actually have jobs profiled by ACT to validate what level of NCRC attainment – bronze, gold, silver or platinum – matches skills needed for a specific job. In fact, Eastman has several entry level jobs that require an NCRC.” Venable said some companies have positions only available to applicants with NCRCs. Others give interview preference to NCRC-certified applicants.
“Each and every county in Northeast Tennessee will benefit from their participation in this program,” Venable said. “Citizens here commute between counties every day as a normal part of business. Having all our citizens have the opportunity to attain NCRC certification elevates the entire region. I see nothing but positives for our region with all of us being work-ready certified. The need to have a qualified workforce spans across our region.
“We want to emphasize how important regional cooperation is on objective opportunities,” Venable said. “This is measurable. There will be outcomes that each community can judge how they are doing in it. The results will be tangible – will be people going to work, applying for jobs and getting jobs. That this will help every county in the region in every way was apparent to all of us.”
The Work Ready Community initiative is one of a few new education and workforce development efforts underway in Northeast Tennessee. The eight counties of the First Tennessee Development District have also begun work on Pathways Tennessee, an initiative designed to connect students as early as middle school with potential employers in their region, and to see that those students receive the proper courses and training to be capable employees.