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May 16, 2021 | Tom Ballard

Knoxville Chamber casts the spotlight on the region’s talent challenges in becoming a tech and innovation hub

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

The Knoxville Chamber is out with its second major report in two months that focuses on key items that must be addressed for the region’s long-term prosperity.

Talent Redefined . . . A Path to Prosperity Strategy” falls on the heels of the late March report titled “Workforce Redefined . . . A Path to Prosperity Strategy.” As their subtitles suggest, the two complementary but separate issues are critically important to the region’s vibrancy and underpin the organization’s five-year strategic plan, appropriately named “Path to Prosperity.”

As highlighted in this February article that was based on an interview with Mike Odom, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Knoxville Chamber, the region grew the all-important 25- to 54-year old age group by less than one-half of one percent in the decade of 2010-19 – 163 individuals to be exact. It’s a startling statistic to say the least.

The newly-issued report further notes the following areas of concern:

  • During the same time, the region witnessed a growth of 6.9 percent in the 15- to 24-year old age group.
  • The Knoxville region had the second highest negative variation between 15- to 24-year old growth and 25- to 54-year old growth. (Lexington was first.) That means that, while Knoxville attracts significant numbers of undergraduate and graduate students to the University of Tennessee and other postsecondary institutions, they quickly move on after graduation, as they presumably do at the University of Kentucky.
  • About 37 percent of the Knoxville region’s population is between the ages of 25-54, while regions successful in retaining/attracting this demographic are between 40 and 45 percent. So, growing this group by 5 percent would equate to about 16,000 more people.

For a region that aspires to be one of the nation’s technology and innovation hubs, to say this is a really big obstacle would not be an understatement. How can we expect to be a tech hotspot without the talent to fill those jobs? Just look to our east where Apple announced last month that it will brings thousands of just to Wake County that will start at an average of more than $133,500 or Nashville that just landed Oracle and thousands of jobs with an average salary of $110,000.

So, what are the recommendations for addressing this big challenge? They fall into four buckets with more specific items in each category.

  • Increase the talent pipeline between Knoxville-area employers and local post-secondary education institutions;
  • Grow the impact of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at regional employers to the wider community;
  • Position the Knoxville region as a long-term destination for 25 to 54-year old professionals; and
  • Assist with the recruitment and engagement of professional-level talent.

The report concludes with an acknowledgement that “the Knoxville region has a head start in winning this war (in part because) thousands visit as tourists, enroll as students and move as spouses to Knoxville each year. They represent ripe marks to convert to full-time residents.”

That said, the report concludes with a challenge to the business and civic community.

“The region must live up to its potential of being a community where all are wanted, included and satisfied. To be in the running for educated, skilled and in-demand talent, the Knoxville region will need to continue to rank high in livability, with housing in different settings at many price points, unique amenities to fill leisure time, an infrastructure that supports growth and a diverse, inclusive and equitable community that is willing to invest in its talent.”

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