Study says unemployed, underemployed a resource for SW Va., Northeast Tenn. economic turnaround

Rick Wagner • May 5, 2007 at 11:57 AM

BLOUNTVILLE - Unemployed and underemployed residents in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia are an asset for a regional economic turnaround, according to a 10-county work force analysis study.

Commissioned by the Regional Alliance for Economic Development and released April 26, the work force assessment recommends, among other things, a regional work force summit during which the study's findings would be used to map out the region's economic future.

A "concerted turnaround is needed in areas of industrial diversification, creating environment to keep/attract the young, engage employers and educators in work force issues, tap into the hidden labor force, and (show that) conditions contrast with statistics," according to a summary conclusion of the assessment.

That hidden labor force numbers almost 120,000 people in a region of more than 563,000 people, according to the report.

"Data collected from the household survey shows that the region has a significant asset in its hidden potential labor supply of approximately 118,920 residents," according to the executive summary of the assessment.

"This hidden supply consists of underemployed residents, residents not currently employed but interested in work and recent college graduates," the summary said. "As a group, these residents are young, are solidly educated and have diverse skill sets."

Andy Burke, president and chief executive officer of the alliance, called that finding one of the highlights of the report.

"This is a wake-up call to think outside the box," Burke said, adding that the summit might be held in September.

Richard Venable, chief executive officer of the NETWORKS – Sullivan Partnership, said the joint effort of Sullivan County, Kingsport, Bristol, Tenn., and Bluff City plans to participate in the summit and said the study provides a good perspective.

Aside from a regional summit, Venable said NETWORKS' work force development efforts plan to "feed off that report and within six months make recommendations to shore up our (work force) efforts."

"The study is important for that reason. It does give us a different view of the picture we've been looking at," Venable said. "We have a ready, proven, trainable work force."

Burke said the underlying theme is that economic development goes hand in hand with education and training.

"We used to say location, location, location, and it's still important. But education, education, education has taken over."

Among the potential work force, according to the study, were:

•78,806 unemployed but working-age people interested in employment. Of those, 40,889 wanted full-time work and 48.1 percent wanted part-time work.

"As a group, these residents are young, have secondary and postsecondary education and have diverse skill sets."

More than 92 percent of the not-employed-but-interested residents have at least a high school diploma, compared to 89.8 percent of all survey respondents.

What's more, 38 percent have some postsecondary training less than a four-year degree versus 35 percent of all survey respondents.

More than 57 percent are women, and almost 68 percent are interested in additional training to gain new job skills. They reported previous work experience in food preparation and serving, unskilled manufacturing production, construction, skilled manufacturing, retail sales and service, customer service and middle management.

Also, 60.8 percent of non-employed interested in employment have no limitations to employment.

•36,800 underemployed residents that reported higher education or skill levels than their current jobs require.

"The underemployed residents also have higher education levels than the overall population. Over 91 percent have at least a high school diploma," the assessment found.

•3,313 recent college graduates.

Leading occupational skills of the unemployed and underemployed include middle management, special trades, business and professional services, installation and repair, highly skilled manufacturing, computer and Internet support service, and professional education, according to the assessment.

The study also found that both employed and unemployed residents "have a desire for training to improve their career opportunities. The most commonly requested training programs are medical related, computer-general and management."

The assessment found a "significant base of postsecondary institutions" to assist employees with general and specialized training programs but that "employers are rarely taking advantage of these educational resources."

The assessment said information about the unemployed and underemployed is important "to counteract some of the unfavorable secondary statistical data present in government and private-sector data" that shows a region with a modest population and labor force growth, an older and rapidly aging population, a declining percentage of residents between the ages of 18 and 34, and low-to-modest educational attainment.

The analysis is of Carter, Greene, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties in Tennessee and Scott and Washington counties in Virginia.

The Wadley-Donovan Group of Springfield, N.J., and Younger Associates of Jackson, Tenn., conducted the analysis.

The report is on the Internet at www.alliancetnva.com.

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