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According to the most recent September 2014 statistics, at least 9.3 percent of Memphis-area residents are unemployed. Ask many of those people why they fall in that category and a frequent answer will be, “There are no jobs out there.”

But the truth is there ARE jobs out there; however, a great number of the Memphis labor force lacks the skills to fill them. In 2013, nearly 18,000 jobs in the Greater Memphis Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) went unfilled. According to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., MSA ranks 86 out of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas on the Skills Gap index, meaning, despite the city’s large labor pool, employers here are struggling to find qualified workers at all skill levels to fill their open positions.

The Greater Memphis Chamber, regional community colleges and local businesses are determined to work together to implement solutions to breach that skills gap and fill those 18,000 available jobs through the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce (GMACW). The new program initially will focus on the local logistics, manufacturing, and biomedical device engineering industries, with an eye on incorporating more of the area’s strengths, such as allied health and information technology, in the future. 

“Our initial objective is to train 2000 people a year in logistics jobs and 1000 people a year in manufacturing jobs,” said Dexter Muller, Senior Advisor at the Greater Memphis Chamber. 

GMACW aims to develop and implement strategies for aligning the needs of business, education and workers, primarily by ensuring that schools are training K-12 students in the skillsets local employers say they need. The industry-driven program evolved from several years of studies, discussions, collaborative efforts and an overall nationwide shift in economic development.  

“During the last few decades, the South has been a very attractive location for new companies for a variety of reasons, but a lot of those jobs have moved from the Midwest where you had highly skilled manufacturing workers, to the South, where you don’t quite have that. And at the same time technology has advanced so the skill levels that are required for the jobs available are a lot higher,” Muller said. “Four or five years ago we started saying that we had two issues that were going on that had a common solution: education and jobs. We had young people and adults in too many numbers that were not getting educated early enough or were unemployed.”

At the time, Shelby County had a number of significant companies relocating to the area.

“Electrolux came into Memphis, and they had to hire 1,250 new people, Mitsubishi Electric, which is building electric transformers, came in and had to hire about 200 people. Blues City Brewery needed to hire a couple hundred. We also had Unilever, the highest technology ice cream plant in the world, about an hour north of us, and they needed to hire almost 1,000 employees,” Muller said.

With a number of entities working on the solution – including the Chamber, the Memphis Economic Growth Development Engine (EDGE), a Chamber-led team working with the Brookings Institution, and government officials – the general consensus was a realization that one singular program was needed to bridge the gap between skills and jobs. 

Consequently, the Chamber’s Chairman Circle, consisting of more than 100 business leaders highly invested in sparking transformational change in Memphis, designated the goal of preparing high school graduates to work in high-demand trades as one of the Circle’s “moon missions” – a select number of visionary, objective-driven, long-term initiatives aimed to foster sustainability and growth in the Memphis area. Initially, the moon mission that sparked GMACW was informally nick-named “Harvard Tech.”

“We first called it Harvard Tech because we decided Memphis needed to become the Harvard of technical schools,” Muller said. “We need to be recognized as a community that’s so good at workforce development that we can fill those 16,000 vacant jobs and more. That distinction will also be a phenomenal economic tool in recruiting more companies to the area. If we can demonstrate that we have the labor force necessary to produce long-term viability for a company, then we’re ultimately going to be successful as a community on many levels.”

The initiative wouldn’t be possible without a revolutionary agreement between two of the region’s most prominent technical schools, Southwest Tennessee Community College and Mid-South Community College. Last year, Dr. Nathan Essex, president of Southwest Tennessee Community College, and Dr. Glen Fenter, president of Mid-South Community College, signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to share faculty, facilities and resources to better equip students with industrial training. The resulting new programs will provide students with industry-required certifications that will allow for faster entry into jobs, while also allowing for application towards an associate or advanced science degree. Further articulation agreements with participating state universities will also offer the option of transferring those credits towards a four-year degree.

Now, Fenter will lead the GMACW as president of the program. Prominent Memphis business leaders and Chairman’s Circle members have a stake in the program as well. Willie Gregory, director of Global Community Impact for Nike, is co-chair of the program’s regional logistics council; DuPont Memphis Plant Manager Deborah McKitten will chair the manufacturing council; and the Bartlett Area Chamber will oversee the medical device industry arm of the program. They are supported by GMACW board of director members from various community sectors.

Hardy Logistics President Carolyn Hardy, who serves on the advisory committee for EDGE, assists with strategic overview. Hardy – whose career path has taken her from an accounting position at J.M. Smucker Co. to a vice president position at the former Memphis Coors plant to the ownership of Chism Hardy Enterprises bottling company to her current position, specializing in analyzing and shaping logistics for the railroad industry – said she often drives by trucking companies and companies such as Blues City Brewery with banners on their fences that say, “Now Hiring Drivers” or “Now Seeking Mechanics and Electricians.” She says those banners are a testament to the fact that good jobs are out there for people who develop and polish the required skills.

In 2012, Hardy worked with Workforce Investment Network (WIN) and Southwest Tennessee Community College to create the Industrial Readiness Training course, a centerpiece of the Made in Memphis Initiative designed to open the eyes of both students and local companies to job and hiring opportunities in manufacturing. She got involved with the GMACW for the same reasons.

“This is one organization that could have an impact on our city’s most significant problems,” Hardy said. “If we can get companies to reshore their manufacturing to Shelby County, that means jobs with great wages, health care, retirement plans and ongoing education opportunities. And if you have the skills these companies need, you don’t have to worry so much about getting laid off and finding another job.”

Both Hardy and Muller say their biggest call to action to Memphis business leaders is to get involved with the initiative, particularly by working with the program to offer internships, apprenticeships and even jobs to Mid-South students. 

“Make us aware of the skills you need and the jobs you have available, because we like to do matchmaking,” Hardy said. “If you’ve got 20 job openings or an expansion coming, let us know so we can give our education institutes, our community colleges and our technical schools an opportunity to help you.”

If you need positions filled in your company or organization, please contact Anita Brackin, director of workforce development and education at the Greater Memphis Chamber at 901-543-3531 or

Story by: Erinn Figg
Photo submitted by: EDGE

Posted: 5/6/2015 10:09:00 AM | with 0 comments

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The latest news from the Greater Memphis Chamber. For more information, contact Director of Communications Christina Meek at (901) 543-3504 ( or Communications Specialist Jenny C. Fish at (901) 543-3558 (