Memphis chamber seeks to disaster-proof businesses

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 30, 2020 6:29 AM CT | Published: April 30, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Greater Memphis Chamber president Beverly Robertson surveys the economic devastation of COVID-19 and sees an opportunity for the business community to become more equitable and resilient during the recovery.

The chamber will be enlisting help from city and county officials and businesses, small and large, to set up a business response council “to deal not just with recovery, but resilience and reset,” Robertson told a Shelby County Commission committee Wednesday, April 29.

Chamber opens small biz lunch series to public via Zoom

The council could help businesses figure out “what could we have done differently as a business to ensure that we don’t experience the trauma again that we experienced this time. It really is about helping businesses to prepare for, heaven forbid, earthquakes, a tornado or another pandemic,” Robertson said.

“They need to be fortified. They need to have some plans in place, so that the trauma they’re experiencing now, the layoffs, the furloughs, may not happen in the same volume if we think through that today, and now’s the time to be able to do that and put that in place,” Robertson said.

“The other thing we’re really keen on, we want to make Memphis a more resilient and more equitable community on the other side of this pandemic,” Robertson added.

“We know the issues we’re experiencing with the death of those folks who are coming down with it are really steeped in the issues we have in our marketplace, whether that’s low-income housing or education or transportation,” she said. “Those are all variables that we need to reset.”

Robertson and chamber senior vice president of workforce development, Ernest Strickland, outlined steps the chamber has taken to help businesses, particularly small businesses, navigate the coronavirus shutdown.

“Small businesses need so much help because they are suffering so tremendously now,” said Robertson.

The chamber’s Greater Memphis Business Resource Center is a one-stop-shop of information ranging from the Open 901 Business Directory to a listing of current job listings from more than 70 companies with immediate openings.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do

All of the chamber’s educational and informational webinars about COVID-19 and various forms of help, from Small Business Administration loan programs to protocols for reopening businesses, can be found there.

The site also contains links to the Workforce Investment Network, the state agency responsible for helping train the workforce and match employers with employees.

“We have an Open 901 directory, which allows us to promote those businesses that are open right now, to keep them open and keep them running. We want people to go there and buy from them so that when everything is on the other side, they don’t have such a tough hill to climb,” Robertson said.

Current job openings range from material handlers to business consultants.

Chamber senior vice president of workforce development Ernest Strickland said timely features of the resource page include a resume optimizer and an online tool that determines a person’s skills and matches that with available job openings.

“We wanted to include some tools individuals could utilize to understand what their skills are. They may not have been in the job market for a while,” Strickland said. “We’re providing a skills match tool free where individuals can take an assessment, they can know their strengths, know their skill sets and be connected with jobs specifically fit for those skills.

“We have a resume optimizer on the site. We wanted to create a quick solution where individuals can come to our page and minimize the time they are dislocated from the workforce,” Strickland said.

The chamber also is continuing to work with industry, faith, nonprofit and other partners on Upskill901.

Commission chairman Mark Billingsley said county government supports the chamber’s effort.

“Whatever this body can do to work together with the chamber, I’m not going to say over the next couple months, but over the next couple years, as we get through this, please know we’re here for you,” Billingsley said.

“This is going to be months and months of effort to reopen small businesses. This next phase is going to be difficult. We have potentially lost so many businesses,” he said.

Workforce Development Committee chairwoman Brandon Morrison said, “As the front door for the city and the business, I believe as we come back from the pandemic, your work is going to become all the more important.”

While unprecedented numbers of residents have been temporarily laid off and signed up for unemployment, the area Workforce Investment Network is concerned about helping displaced workers get back to work and employers to find qualified workers, executive director Kyla Guyette told the committee.

Memphis area jobless claims tick up slightly

American Job Centers closed to the public on March 20, with workers continuing to assist employers and job seekers by phone and email since then. Job Centers don’t handle unemployment claims, which are processed centrally by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Guyette said local job centers should reopen to the public on an appointment basis May 15.

The WIN office is hoping to receive federal funding to hire 100 people to place in jobs related to COVID-19 cleanup and recovery, Guyette said. The jobs will pay $18 an hour for 40 hours a week for 12 weeks, she said, and will likely be assigned to municipalities.

The job centers have been remotely continuing programs such as training for incumbent workers to improve their skills and avoid layoffs, and paying for on-the-job training of workers, Guyette said.

Morrison said programs to enhance skills of local workers will continue to be in high demand.

“I do believe in today’s economy we’re going to see the need sometimes to change or pivot directions based on our skills and the needs of the workforce,” Morrison said.

COVID-19 in Memphis and Shelby County: April


Greater Memphis Chamber COVID-19 coronavirus economic recovery unemployment Upskill901
Wayne Risher

Wayne Risher

Business news reporter, 43-year veteran of print journalism, 35-year resident of Memphis, University of Georgia alumnus and proud father and spouse of University of Memphis graduates.


Reading comments and joining the conversation are some of the many benefits of subscribing. Join the conversation by clicking the View Comments button below. Not a subscriber? Click here. 

Our commenting policy can be viewed here