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April 04, 2023 | Shannon Smith

Knox County Workforce Summit addresses challenges, goals for employers

Knox County has a low unemployment rate, but many jobs to fill. Area businesses discussed hiring, recruiting, and retaining talent in a changing workforce.

Knox County, the Knoxville Chamber, and presenting sponsor Regions Bank hosted over 100 attendees on April 4 at Jackson Terminal to discuss workforce issues and solutions in the region. This is the first year the program has been held.

The Knox County Workforce Summit started off with remarks from Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. He noted that while adding new jobs is exciting, it now leads people to think, “where are we going to find people to fill those jobs?”

This comes as Knoxville has an impressively low unemployment rate of 2.5 percent, but not enough workers to take the new jobs coming online each day. “We have to have the skills that are necessary to fill the jobs of the 21st century,” said Jacobs.

Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Deniece Thomas.

Attendees then heard from Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Deniece Thomas, who expressed the importance of feedback from the business community. “We can make decisions on workforce development looking out of our windows in Nashville and get it wrong,” she said. “We need you. Your voice is the one that will carry. Our ears are wide open.”

Commissioner Thomas, and most other speakers, talked about the importance of starting workforce training in grade schools, and erasing the stigma that going to work in a trade means you’re a ‘failure.’ She highlighted the importance of apprenticeships and working/learning opportunities for students, but also noted “we have to work with the workforce that we have.”

That means people who may need extra help getting a job, whether that be because of a criminal record or transportation issues. Commissioner Thomas pointed out the importance of employers working with the business services team at the American Job Center in Knoxville who can help with related programs that can benefit a company’s bottom line.

There were two panel discussions. The first panel included representatives from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s Labor Standards Unit, the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the law firm Lewis Thomason. The panel addressed employer concerns including hiring minors, assisting individuals with disabilities, job requirements, overtime, and more.

More than 100 people attend the first Knox County Workforce Summit.

The second panel included leaders at Dollywood, First Utility District, DeRoyal, and Knoxville Utilities Board. The panel highlighted programs in practice, highlighting hiring and retention success, employer-sponsored training, building a pipeline, and more.

Dr. Matt Harris from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research gave an update on the statistics of the area labor market and economy, noting that when it comes to income and employment “people value things differently now than they did before the pandemic.”

Harris explained that even with an influx of people to the state – 36,000 more people moved to Tennessee in 2022 than in 2021 – there are still two open jobs for every person looking for one, and in many cases, Knoxville is paying at or below what similar size cities are in most job sectors.

Knox County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jon Rysewyk closed out the event, speaking about how the school system is pushing to make sure students either enlist in the military, enroll in higher education, or are employed in high-wage jobs after graduation. All the speakers today are working to get more people employed at good jobs where they can stay and grow.

For more information on Workforce Service Providers in the area, click here.

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