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Weekend edition October 29, 2021 | Kailyn Lamb

Businesses turn to traditionally overlooked groups to fill open jobs

By Kailyn Lamb, Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA

As Tennessee continues to recover from the pandemic, a shift in the labor force is causing persistent problems in the Knoxville region.

“Now Hiring” signs have become commonplace in many businesses across the city. For the past several months, businesses surveyed in the Knoxville Chamber’s “Economic Conditions Outlook” reports have said they are struggling to hire workers. Some have started closing one day a week to give employees a day off.

Data has shown there’s no one factor why people are not taking jobs. In some cases, it’s a lack of training. In others, it’s the lack of childcare or job flexibility. Wages and unemployment benefits also come into play.

Labor Shortage

Lauren Longmire, Director of Regional Enhancement with the Chamber, said the pandemic caused a shift in mindset for many workers. With older members of the workforce, Longmire said the Chamber expected people to be cautious and keep their jobs. Instead, many decided they could retire. The pandemic also caused many food service workers to leave their jobs as restaurants closed. Once those locations reopened, people weren’t returning to those jobs in favor of something with steady wages and a more flexible environment. According to a report from The Sycamore Institute that was published earlier this year, hospitality and leisure jobs were hit the hardest both in the State of Tennessee and nationwide.

The report also indicated that there was a 40 percent drop in small businesses in Tennessee, which impacts local employment options. You can read the report here. also published a story in the Weekend Edition that reflects the impact of small businesses on employment and the economy. Read that story here.

Another factor, said Doug Lawyer, Vice President of Economic Development at the Chamber, is transit. Keira Wyatt, Co-Founder and Executive Director of C.O.N.N.E.C.T. Ministries, agreed, adding that when jobs leave communities, those neighborhoods fall apart. Her organization is looking to bring jobs to underserved neighborhoods to build more support. “We are trying to bring as many jobs to communities as possible,” she said.

Longmire added that the number of open positions means people can take their time to find the right fit for them instead of taking the first available job.

The Chamber has been working on a strategy to help Knoxville grow. Longmire said the conversations around the “Path to Prosperity” strategy began pre-pandemic and some concerns were around workforce and retaining talent.

Although Knoxville is growing, it is not growing in the crucial 25-54 age group. The city’s main workforce also leans toward the 55 and up age group, meaning a large chunk of workers are heading toward retirement. The pandemic hasn’t helped matters.

“We know now that the conversation and that situation has been exacerbated,” Longmire said. “We have boasted a low unemployment in our Knoxville MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area), and we have gone back to those same numbers, very close to pre-pandemic unemployment numbers.”

While “Path to Prosperity” is meant to help in the long-term, the Chamber is working with businesses to find employees for the shortage now.

Job Data

The latest “ECO” report from the Chamber showed that in August, the Knoxville MSA had 39,244 unique positions, but only 15,226 unemployed people. Read our article here.

According to September data compiled by the Chamber from job sites such as Glassdoor, as well as data from the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Enforcement, the number of unique job postings has been rising in the Knoxville region since October 2020. Most of the jobs don’t list salary, education, or experience requirements. Nursing jobs account for many positions, as well as commercial drivers, and entry-level service jobs in retail and fast food.

To find people to fill jobs, the Chamber is connecting employers to groups of people that have been traditionally overlooked when it comes to hiring.

“It comes down to finding those pockets of demand,” Lawyer said. “Here’s a group of people that wants to work, and what is the mode to get them to that place of employment.”

Untapped Talent

In the past few months, the Chamber hosted “Untapped Talent” and “Grow Together” webinars. The virtual events focused on what ways businesses could connect with some of these groups, such as people with disabilities, formerly incarcerated individuals, and the Latino population. You can read our stories on these two events here and here. The Chamber also hosts a directory on its website to connect employers to employment groups.

For Wyatt, partnerships like this are important. To work through the hiring crisis, people need to support each other, she added.

Through partnerships with manufacturers and city officials, C.O.N.N.E.C.T. Ministries can provide training to formerly incarcerated individuals and other groups that struggle to find work, like elderly or young workers with little experience.

With formerly incarcerated individuals, Wyatt said, “people really need to look at nonviolent offenders.” Some of them were young, with behavioral issues, or were doing what they could to survive. Providing them with training and job opportunities can help rebuild their self-confidence, dignity, and value, she said.

“When people don’t feel valued, they have a tendency to quit.”

Increasing second chance opportunities like this can also help lower the city’s recidivism rate. Longmire said the number one indicator for people who return to prison within three years of release is joblessness.

“I think people are really starting to understand too how crucial it is for our community to focus on some of these areas, particularly on second-chance employment,” she said. “Knoxville has the highest recidivism rate of our four metro areas in the state of Tennessee.”

C.O.N.N.E.C.T. Ministries is also expanding into a field that needs trained workers. The organization’s new training facility will offer high school students part-time work that will train them in manufacturing, cybersecurity, and automated machinery. Cybersecurity  is an area where trained employees are in short supply. Wyatt said they will have the machines on-site for students to work with and will connect students with technical schools for further education.

People with disabilities are another often overlooked pool of potential workers. Stephanie Cowherd, Associate Director of the Center for Literacy, Education, and Employment at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said across the nation, there are around 60 million people with a disability, but only 22.6 percent of them are employed. According to an April report from Knox County Planning, less than a quarter of the 54,613 individuals with disabilities that are of working age participate in the labor force and are employed.

“It’s a really big gap,” Cowherd said. “We’re trying to really promote the fact that these are folks that have been maybe not recognized or looked at in the past, but right now with the economy the way it is, people are begging for employees.”

Cowherd, along with Paula Jones and Stephanie Cook, works with the Knoxville Area Employment Consortium (KAEC). Cook works as the city’s Americans With Disabilities Act Coordinator, connecting city officials to mentees with disabilities.

Often, employees are afraid to hire people with disabilities because they don’t know what questions to ask or how to interact with people with disabilities, Cook said. Resources such as the Job Accommodation Network can help with that. Jones also said that many accommodations are possible through technological advancements. Speech-to-text and enlarged fonts are both items available on the average smartphone, for example.

In the last few months, the three women agreed that more businesses are looking to hire people with disabilities. While some of it is out of necessity of filling much-needed roles, there is a positive side.

“People with disabilities can get jobs right now that maybe they couldn’t have gotten in the past,” Cowherd said.

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