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Beverly C. Robertson

Beverly C. Robertson is the president of the Greater Memphis Chamber, principal of TRUST Marketing, and recently retired president of the National Civil Rights Museum. 

Employers need to tap an under-used resource: the re-entry population

By Published: June 12, 2019 6:22 PM CT

As the new Chamber president, I am making my rounds with leaders of the Memphis business community. As we exchange ideas, many have expressed their optimism about where Memphis is headed, but they have voiced their concern about securing the necessary talent to fill existing and future jobs.

Affirming their concern about the workforce, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported June 7 that the May unemployment rate remained at 3.6%, where it stood in April. It’s the lowest level since December 1969.

While that is certainly an optimistic outlook, it is tempered by concerns related to getting audiences who are historically left out into the employment game. According to the Wall Street Journal, employers are struggling to draw workers off the sidelines. That’s why we must be more creative when it comes to filling jobs in this region.

<strong>Beverly C. Robertson</strong>

Beverly C. Robertson

There are still scores of individuals who can be contributing citizens who cannot access jobs; one such group is the re-entry population – those who are making the transition from jail or prison back to the community.

There is considerable research to suggest that full employment is the most important factor needed to help those reentering society pursue law-abiding, productive lives. In fact, unemployment is one of the principal causes of recidivism among adult male offenders. If we as a community are serious about reducing crime and poverty, we must work tirelessly to get people educated, trained and employed.

The Greater Memphis Chamber is engaging in a series of initiatives to do just that.

For example, our construction industry is one of the industries experiencing high labor demand. The Chamber established We Build 901 Construction Collaborative to address the shortage.

We Build 901 focuses on building a talent pipeline for careers in the construction trades. More than 30 companies make up the collaborative, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Turner Construction, Memphis International Airport, Gibson Mechanical, Top Cat Masonry, FedEx, Montgomery Martin, Linkous and Flintco, to name a few.

It is estimated that the Greater Memphis area will have approximately $15 billion in construction projects in coming years. To ensure that local companies have access to qualified talent and that our communities experience the total benefit of such economic growth we need to collectively:

  • Identify the skills and talent needed to support the work at all levels;
  • Build a pipeline of qualified talent from within the Greater Memphis community;
  • Strengthen systems that align training and talent with the expressed needs from employers.

We have somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 job openings in our region. What will it take to get at least 10,000 job seekers upskilled and ready to fill those jobs over 24 to 36 months?

In response to both job seekers and employers who say we need to bridge the gap between talent and opportunities, the Greater Memphis Chamber will convene regional stakeholders from the workforce ecosystem to stimulate workforce effectiveness and productivity, connect people to resources that increase earnings, and build a pipeline across industries of qualified individuals who can perform in a national workplace.

The No. 1 thing that companies looking to expand or relocate in Memphis want to know is: Do you have the workforce my company needs to succeed? Nearly every major city in America struggles with this question. We believe that Memphis is not only a great magnet for new talent but also is fertile ground for incredible talent, too.

Our vision is for Memphis and Shelby County to be a national benchmark for workforce development. We want people to look at what we’re doing in Memphis as a model for how to address workforce challenges. Re-entry will be a pillar of focus.

I would like to invite you to join me on June 11 at a forum connecting Memphis area businesses with sources of skilled, qualified employees who are ex-offenders. An Operation Safe Community Initiative, it will be held at the University of Memphis, from 8:30 a.m. to noon in the University Center.

To register, click here.

There is substantial data to suggest that crime reduction through employment can be successful. It is not easy; in fact it is challenging, but I am beginning to see positive movement in the right direction.

Companies previously opposed to hiring ex-offenders are awakening to the value of creating taxpayers rather than funding perpetrators. Let’s continue to advance these efforts to move ex-offenders off the sidelines and into the game. 

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Greater Memphis Chamber Beverly Robertson

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