New job opportunities are one thing. Having qualified employees to fill those slots is another.

As the state of Tennessee touts new business creation in the wake of its latest economic report, Blount County is focused on creating a labor force to meet the demands of a more diversified economy.

That’s the one-two-punch take on the Tennessee Quarterly Business and Economic Indicators Report released Friday; it shows new business filings in the state increased 8.2% in the third quarter of 2019 compared to the previous year.

The increase in new entity filings suggests continued economic growth for Tennessee. Secretary of State Tre Hargett credited the positive report to the state’s business climate.

“This continued growth is a testament to the business-friendliness of Tennessee,” Hargett said in a statement that accompanied the report.

William Fox, director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, offered a prediction based on the figures.

“Initial filings grew for the 32nd consecutive quarter, signaling that Tennessee’s economic expansion will continue through the next year,” Fox said.

According to the report, the state’s manufacturing sector saw job growth of 1.8%, or 6,200 jobs, compared to September 2018. Tennessee’s unemployment rate held steady in October at 3.4%, matching the previous month’s rate, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Blount County’s take

None of that is news to Blount County, according to Blount Partnership President/CEO Bryan Daniels, who on Friday said steady business growth has been a given in recent years, which presents its own challenges.

“For Blount County, we are still riding our wave of success we’ve had in the last five years,” Daniels said, adding that support businesses have followed primary sector employers into the area.

Daniels considers primary sector jobs as those created in the county’s business parks or areas adjacent to the parks or business hubs, like Cirrus Aircraft located next to McGhee Tyson Airport. There are startups like ProNova Solutions. There’s internal growth, like the $1 billion, 1,000-job expansion by DENSO. Even longtime Blount County employers like Clayton Homes are in that mix, he said. Clayton was looking beyond Blount County as a possible site for its headquarters a few years back before settling on its location near Pellissippi Parkway and Old Knoxville Highway.

“We kept them, really. They were on Alcoa Highway forever and a day,” Daniels said. “That’s one brought in years and years ago, but they continue to grow.”

Which, in turn, drives the growth of support businesses, he said.

“On the Chamber of Commerce side, there’s been 42 businesses open up during this past year, and that’s all attributed to these primary-sector jobs that are coming in. These other businesses provide services to those employees.”

Keeping close to home

Despite the success the Partnership has had in recruiting new businesses to the county, Daniels said he would rather put resources into existing businesses instead of going out to recruit a company officials don’t have a working relationship with yet.

“If we can help them expand here, that’s what we want to do where we can. Markets are going to change, and business is cyclical. You’re always going to have some businesses close due to attrition, who lose some competitive edge,” he said.

So business recruitment is ongoing. But according to Daniels, Blount’s success allows the search for the next attractive employer to be targeted.

“We’re really, right now, into a very, very extremely focused recruitment — trying to fit specific niches because our economy is so strong here. We don’t want to be taking resources or workforce from one company and giving it to another. We’re trying to really broaden the labor force we have here and the skill sets we have here. That’s where a lot of attention for us is — being focused on what we don’t have here and building the labor force so we can have those businesses here,” he said.

Education is key

Which brings Blount County to where Daniels says it is now. The jobs will come, but only if there is a labor force available and capable of filling those jobs. Which is why the Partnership has linked education and workforce development, he said. The idea is not only to prepare a workforce to accommodate employee turnover, but to be ready for what’s new and next, and to prepare students for innovative jobs provided by cutting-edge companies. That will be the driver of continued economic enhancement, according to the Blount Partnership’s chief.

“We need to encourage the education systems here to provide courses and training to drive students to those career paths. Once we have that labor force, then we can recruit those companies that do not exist here yet,” Daniels said.

That means broadening the career paths of students in Blount County’s school systems.

“A company’s not going to come here unless there’s a labor force to support it. We’re focused on the labor needs that we don’t have here. Those are going to help us diversify our economy,” Daniels said.

Bob has served in a variety of roles since joining The Daily Times in the 90s. He currently is editor of the business section. When someone gets promoted, retires or gets hired at a new job in Blount County, he's the man to email.

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