From the winner's circle: Chattanooga 2.0
In 2008, as the world wrestled with the fallout from the global financial crisis, growth in Chattanooga, Tennessee barely skipped a beat. Now, the city is showing signs of growing pains, with its workforce lacking the education attainment levels needed to fill the high-paying jobs arriving every day in Hamilton County.
To correct this misalignment, the Chattanooga Chamber and its community partners introduced Chattanooga 2.0, an initiative designed to increase the portion of Hamilton County adults with a college degree or technical training certificate from 38 percent to 75 percent by 2025. The chamber estimates that 80 percent of the 15,000 new jobs expected over the next several years will require a post-secondary degree.
“There’s not only an economic imperative, but also a moral imperative,” said David Steele, vice president of policy and education at the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of what makes Chattanooga such an awesome place to live and work was not awesomeness that was being enjoyed by everyone in the community.”
The initiative has already begun reshaping education in Chattanooga. The coalition has launched a new polytechnic academy housed in a local community college, which welcomes students from each of the eight city high schools and trains them in four localized career clusters. A partnership with Volkswagen AG provides industry credentials that often lead to high-paying jobs at its local plant.
“We are distributing certificate programs that lead to other degrees and credentials earlier in the pipeline, when the kids are juniors and seniors in high school,” explained Steele. “The goal is not simply degrees and credentials, but degrees and credentials that have a value within the context of our economy.”
The chamber solicited feedback from stakeholders over an 18-month period to identify obstacles to accessing college, successful programs for replication and strategies for bridging the gaps in available opportunities. At the same time, it kept the community updated through weekly print and online newspaper columns, letters to the editor, op-eds and email newsletters.
“We had school board members host town hall meetings, and we made presentations to every level of government,” recounted Steele. “The 2.0 program schedules two to three meetings a week, so an awful lot of communication takes place in conference rooms and around board tables. It’s become a really dominant factor here in our community.”
Although 2025 still looms far off, there are signs that the initiative is on the right track. Chamber publications predict that 20 percent of the graduating class of 2018 will have been involved in an industry credential program during their junior and senior years. The chamber's communications also speak volumes, with the coalition's website earning 3,600 average monthly visits and 1,500 subscribers to its weekly newsletter.
The coalition’s success was further validated when the Chattanooga Chamber was named Chamber of the Year by ACCE in July. The award recognized the chamber for its success with Chattanooga 2.0, as well as Thrive 2055, a regional growth campaign that complemented the 2.0 movement.
“The award has been a tremendous source of pride for our entire staff and the membership,” said Steele, adding that the chamber has taken the trophy on a tour of its regional councils. “It’s something the entire community has taken ownership of, and that’s been very exciting for us.”
But, even with the chamber still reeling from its big award wins at the ACCE convention, Steele insists the best is yet to come for the chamber and the Chattanooga community.
“It’s very gratifying to have received the recognition we have, but if you were to talk to our staff, the sense you’d get is that none of us feel like we’ve peaked,” he said. “We’re very focused as individuals and teams on building on the success we saw last year, and maintaining the momentum as we continue to enhance our organizational infrastructure.”
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