Workforce & Literacy

In response to a growing demand within the region from local community and business leaders, the First Tennessee Development District, at the request of the Board of Directors, has taken a leadership role in addressing our region’s workforce and literacy issues in partnership with the State of Tennessee, area school systems, community colleges, TCATs, East Tennessee State University and regional employers. In order to accomplish this, the FTDD has focused on four key efforts. These include building the frame work for the region to attain designation as a Work Ready Region with ACT as well as the development of a Work Ethic Diploma for area high school students. Both of these initiatives are differentiators providing a strong economic development advantage for the region.  Efforts are also being focused on building a Pathways to Prosperity Network within the region to ensure that high school and post secondary curriculum align with our region’s workforce needs. Finally, the District is also coordinating a regional literacy campaign which will place an emphasis on literacy from birth to age 5, to reinforce and support ongoing public education goals to boost 3rd grade reading proficiency. 

ACT Work Ready Communities

In the spring of 2016, Sullivan County completed all ACT Work Ready Community training and officially received designation as a participating community. Working with local leaders in Sullivan County, ACT established county-wide goals for the number of National Career Readiness Certificates earned over a two year period to officially be certified as a Work Ready Community. The NCRC, a nationally recognized credential, measures attainment in the areas of applied mathematics, locating information and reading for information.   Additionally, goals for business support of the NCRC were also established for Sullivan County.

Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable encouraged the county mayors in Northeast Tennessee to apply and join Sullivan County in earning a Work Ready Community designation, in effect providing the entire region the opportunity to earn this distinction across the nation as a region committed to equipping its citizens with nationally recognized, transportable credentials and providing business and industry with a pipeline of qualified employees.  Work Ready Community designation provides economic development professionals with a competitive advantage when promoting the region as only around 4% of counties in the nation have earned this distinction.  Site Selector Magazine has begun using the number of National Career Readiness Certificates achieved as one component for determining where to  locate new businesses.   On September 1st,  ACT officially accepted the counties of Carter, Greene, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Unicoi and Washington into the Work Ready Community Academy,  joining Sullivan County on the quest for this official designation.

Work Ethic Diploma

While our region has historically enjoyed the reputation of a workforce with a strong work ethic, area business owners and leaders express great frustration in the lack of soft or employability skills in their new employee hires.  Soft skills include things like attendance, punctuality, working as a team and being drug free, to name a few.  While there are elements of soft skills training intertwined throughout a student’s K-12 education, sustained understanding and practice of those skills is no longer evident.  Area businesses report an increase in time and spending on recruitment due to issues such an applicant’s inability to pass a drug test and poor communications skills during an interview.

As part of the Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP) Grant 1.0, Hawkins County was part of a consortium with Grainger and Hamblen Counties in developing a work ethic diploma.  This graduation distinction and criteria was designed in partnership with education (high school, TCAT Morristown and Walter State), the Workforce Development Organization Area 2, and various employer partners.

This diploma includes 14 standards, the attainment of which, high school seniors can be awarded from 1 to 5 points toward the 20 point minimum requirement to be recognized with the Work Ethic Diploma distinction at high school graduation.    Included in those 14 standards are items such as attendance, absentees and tardiness.  Students can attain points for dual enrollment credits and industry awareness and certification.

A compelling piece to the Work Ethic Diploma is the fact that in excess of 25 businesses agreed to guarantee an interview to any student with this distinction who also meets the minimum job requirements of an opening.

In recognition of the commuting patterns and opportunities for employment across the 8 counties within the FTDD, business and community leaders expressed a desire to see the work ethic diploma expanded.  Additionally, the Hancock County superintendent expressed interest in ensuring his graduates had greater employment opportunity reach than beyond the three counties initially included in the process.  Work is currently underway to include the school systems in all 8 counties in a regional work ethic diploma.  It is anticipated that all area boards of education will have approved the involvement of their district in this initiative by mid-October of this year.  With that level of commitment from the region, work will begin to expand the businesses recognizing and supporting the Work Ethic Diploma throughout Northeast Tennessee.  The goal is to introduce the opportunity to rising high school seniors in the spring of 2017 in order to participate during the, 2017/2018 school year.

Northeast Tennessee Pathways to Prosperity

In 2012, the State of Tennessee joined the Pathways to Prosperity Network, a collaboration of states and regions, Jobs for the Future and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  The purpose is to ensure that more students attain a credential or degree with market value in their labor market.  This is accomplished through building a partnership between education and businesses in the region and ensuring that students are educated and trained in the skills that match business needs.  A pathway spans from middle school through post secondary and includes work-based learning, early college credit opportunities and career guidance.  Those opportunities should lead to credentials with labor market value in the high growth sectors of the regional economy.

The Northeast Tennessee Pathways Partnership has been initiated with a regional advisory board with over 20 employers, government and educational leaders taking part in the development of focus areas and goals to achieve opportunities for students in the region.  For year one, Pathways will focus on two strategic industry sectors, with over arching activities and plans of work that impact the business community and students in the region.   These focus areas will have a deep dive into the needs of employers, the curriculum at the high school and post secondary levels including modifications, new offerings and potentially the termination of some programs to make resources available to focus on true job and career potential in the area.  To address these issues, global initiatives will be developed.  One such initiative is CareerQuest TN, an interactive career fair planned for Spring  of 2017 that will be made available to all area middle and high schools students.   CareerQuest TN will give students an opportunity to be exposed to careers in four major sectors: Advanced Manufacturing, Construction, Health Care and Information Technology.  This exposure will allow students to be introduced to potential careers and an opportunity to interact with a practitioner doing the specific jobs being showcased.


Another issue our region faces is the number of students unprepared to enter kindergarten which ultimately negatively impacts reading proficiency.  Students who begin school behind often stay behind.  And the cost of remediation for students is high, as much as three times the cost to educate a student who is prepared.  The lack of reading skills has huge individual and social impact.  Struggling students have  greater difficulty reaching reading proficiency by third grade, which correlates to higher high school dropout rates.  Individuals who drop out of high school between the ages of 18-24 are twice as  likely to live in poverty.  One way to impact school readiness is to ensure students  are exposed to reading, verbal communication,  vocabulary from birth.  An initiative to encourage parents and caregivers to share with children is the focus of a taskforce working to impact reading skills.  Partners involved in this initiative included library systems, school systems, businesses, the housing authority, economic development organizations, Niswonger Children’s Hospital, and many others.

The task force is working on a campaign, SHARE, to encourage increased verbal interaction and reading with children from birth.  Research shows the dramatic impact this will have on vocabulary and communications skills .The goal is to create a eco-system that encourages and supports sharing.  Additional tenets of the SHARE initiative include available books to lower resourced families, expanding summer outreach programs and developing year-round literacy programs.

For more information about the District's Workforce or Literacy Initiatives, please contact Lottie Ryans at (423) 928-0224.