Always the realist, when Eldridge fantasizes about Washington County’s future, he doesn’t envision luring new industries into the county’s borders, enhancing the county’s population or jumpstarting its taxbase.
Those things will come, Eldridge believes, if the county first establishes an educated and career-ready workforce.
“We’re going to have to have a very regional focus over the next five to 10 years on education and workforce development in order to make this region more attractive for new investment and job creation,” Eldridge said.
It’s basically a chain reaction, the way Eldridge explains it, but it all hinges on education.
“We can’t improve the opportunity and desirability of this region without quality jobs. And we can’t attract quality jobs without a quality workforce. Education is the key to a quality workforce” Eldridge said.
“We’ve got to work backwards from what we want to accomplish, and at the end of the day, we want to improve the opportunity and desirability of this region.”
Eldridge said the seeds of tomorrow have already been planted through an initiative called ACT Work Ready Communities, led by Lottie Ryans with the First Tennessee Development District.
Ryans is trying to get all eight counties in Northeast Tennessee certified as ACT Work Ready Communities, a credential job seekers can use to prove their skills and companies can leverage to know they’re hiring qualified employees.
Counties are certified “work ready” when they meet established goals based on their population size, get a certain percentage of individuals to earn the ACT National Career Readiness Certificate and get a certain number of employers to recognize the certification.
Job seekers can earn their National Career Readiness Certificate by taking the ACT WorkKeys assessment, which measures a range of essential work skills, like applied mathematics and reading for information.
Currently, Washington County has reached 50 percent of its “Work Ready” status, with 524 county residents earning their certification and 32 county employers already signed on to recognize or recommend the certification.
Ryans has said some studies show a person with an associate degree and the National Career Readiness Certificate can make up to $3,000 more than someone with just an associate degree.
The WorkKeys tests do costs $36 each to take, but Washington County officials have already budgeted funding so that all 2018 county high school graduates have an opportunity to take the test.
With the next three years, Eldridge said he hopes the county is fully certified as an ACT Work Ready Community, with the majority of the county job seekers holding the work-ready credential and the majority of local employers recognizing it.
“What I would hope to see is in the next five to 10 years, I would like to see some serious incremental progress on this, with the result being the creation of some quality jobs through investment. And really it doesn’t matter if that’s outside investment or our existing employers,” Eldridge said.
In addition to being work-ready, another item on Eldridge’s wishlist is seeing more aligned partnerships between school systems and post-secondary schools so students can obtain more duel credits while still in high school.
“What would be really good is if we could align our curriculums to where that duel credit they earn in high school is accepted at any of the three institutions: a TCAT (Tennessee College of Applied Technology), a community college or the university,” Eldridge said. “They’re already doing that in Chattanooga so it’s not like we would be reinventing the wheel.”