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Workforce now, workforce next

Pathways to Success: A Panel Conversation


Earlier this year, GiVE 365 awarded eight organizations $63,400 following the theme Pathways to Success: programs that provide workforce training and career development. On August 19, GiVErs gathered at the University of Memphis’s innovation hub, UMRF Research Park, to take a closer look at this theme to understand the impact of these grants within a city-wide context.

In its simplest form, workforce development is about equipping people with the skills they need to get and keep high-quality jobs. This basic concept, however, has many complex facets, which is evident in the varied approaches of GiVE 365’s 2019 grantees. Often, workforce development is also about understanding and overcoming the effects of multi-generational poverty. It’s about solving transportation and childcare issues. It’s about finding resources for employees who are caring for aging parents. It’s about encouraging personal development and teaching professional norms.

 “Workforce development is really about meeting people where they are—wherever that may be—and empowering them to be their best,” said Gwyn Fisher, Greater Memphis Regional Director at the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development (pictured, far left). Fisher moderated the evening’s panel conversation that included Leslie Lynn Smith (President and CEO, Epicenter), Sondra Howell (Vice President Talent Development, Greater Memphis Chamber), and Ted Townsend (Chief Economic Development and Government Relations Officer, University of Memphis).

Consensus among the panelists is that talent, innovation, and creativity are alive and well in Memphis. However, noted Howell, “We strategically and intentionally need to change our narrative about our workforce.” That includes being optimistic and enthusiastic, investing in people and ideas with the belief that they will prosper.

There are currently 14,000 unfilled jobs in the Memphis metro area. Collectively, we have the opportunity and the charge to not only “connect the supply to the demand,” as Smith put it, but also to build a future talent pipeline through “workforce now, workforce next” thinking, Townsend asserted. We must train to the needs of area employers and for jobs that are yet to be invented, creating a culture of interdisciplinary learning and adaptability.

A crucial aspect of building a skilled workforce is removing barriers for those who have been historically underestimated and providing access to resources that scale businesses up. Smith discussed one way this is being addressed in Memphis through the efforts of The 800 Initiative. Spearheaded by Smith’s nonprofit Epicenter, the initiative is built on the fact that there are 39,800 black-owned businesses in Memphis, but only 800 have an employee other than the founder. This statistic is monumental because each employee beyond a business owner, according to Smith, multiplies a company’s revenue nine times. (Learn more about The 800 Initiative to grow minority firms.)

The panelists challenged the audience to be thoughtful and intentional about supporting all types of local businesses in order to keep them here and operating, so that we can ultimately contribute to the “stickiness” of Greater Memphis that makes employers and employees alike stay here and grow.

See photos from the event here.