HEP focuses on economic development, workforce and leadership at annual meeting

HEP President George Halford addresses the attendees at his final HEP annual meeting in that role.

By Michelle Price
Special to the UCBJ

COOKEVILLE – Business leaders from across the Highlands gathered at the Leslie Town Centre on Monday, May 20, for the Highlands Economic Partnership (HEP) annual meeting. HEP highlighted its two major objectives, economic development and workforce development, and honored 34 business leaders on completing the Highlands Leaders course. 

HEP Vice-President of Economic Development Stephen Crook shared that on the economic development front, the Highland’s biggest challenges are lagging per capita personal income and the outmigration of young talent. 

Stephen Crook updates the attendees on economic development issues.

Crook expressed the need to be intentional and targeted in our future economic development. He said we don’t want to harm our existing businesses and their ability to grow by bringing in companies that will recruit a labor force that might already be saturated. Instead, Crook said we should target those key sectors that are primed for growth and are aligned with our local workforce development efforts.

HEP spends approximately 50 percent of its efforts on business retention and expansion, according to Crook. HEP serves as the primary industry contact for Cookeville and Putnam County and serves as support staff for regional partners’ retention and expansion efforts. Crook shared that many companies lack knowledge of what goods and services other companies in the area provide. HEP serves as the linkage to make those connections to allow companies to find vendors and partners without leaving the region.

Marketing and attraction is another area that HEP is focusing on. HEP serves as the staff to the Putnam County Industrial Development Board. HEP also studies current trends and assists in the targeting of particular industries for recruitment.

Crook mentioned that Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has recently sent a report evaluating HEP’s competitiveness. The report identified two key threats to the communities’ success in economic development efforts.

The first threat identified was a lack of available product. The cities and counties in our region do not traditionally develop land and buildings as assets. Private sector partners may have those assets, and, if so, the HEP would market those assets to potential businesses. 

The second identified threat is marketing. Many other communities have representatives who have cultivated close personal relationships with people involved in key market visits. Relationships are the way you win in economic development now more than ever, according to Crook. 

“We need to make sure that we are as a program continuing to invest in marketing initiatives to make sure those companies, consultants and trade associations that need to know about our community know about us,” said Crook. 

“Because I don’t know if you have looked at us on paper, on paper we’re not a competitor,” shared Crook. “…but when we get the opportunity to tell our story of why we are the best place for these businesses to locate, we usually do pretty well. So, we need to continue to invest in marketing initiatives and make sure that we bring the right types of companies and right types of leads to our community that can help grow the economy.”

Workforce development is the other key area that HEP is focusing on. Since the start of the eighth-grade career fair in 2009, workforce development has been a priority. 

Lillian Hartgrove has worked with local company representatives since then conducting surveys to determine where the gaps were in supplying the skilled labor the Highland’s companies require and developing programs to create a pipeline of available skilled workers.

Adam Bernhardt, controller at ATC Automation, helped create a survey that identified the first gap in advanced manufacturing. By working with the local high schools, classes were started to create a pipeline of workers to fill that gap.

Don Viar

Don Viar, of EpiOn, put together a similar survey for IT companies that identified gaps in networking and cybersecurity. The high school has added classes for this, and last fall 180 students were in that pipeline.

A serious shortage in nurses was also identified. As a result, Vol State has implemented a two-year RN program that launches June 10 and is already completely full. Employers are waiting to hire these students upon graduation.

The final shortage currently identified is in teachers. HEP is working with schools on education as a pathway. 

“We have a whole team of people – Tennessee Tech College of Education, Vol State and the Highland’s area directors of schools,” explained Hartgrove. “We are inventorying what the high schools are offering and then Tennessee Tech is researching all the licensing opportunities for someone interested in teaching. The directors of schools are then going to tell us where they have shortages. Is it in elementary? Middle or High school? Is it English? Is it science, is it math, is it special education, is it history?”

The plan is to align high schools with what the students need to go into Vol State or Tennessee Tech, creating a new pipeline of educators.

Another program, U.C. Tennessee Reconnect, was started with a grant three years ago. This program was designed to help the existing workforce that may be employed but lacking skills desired by their employer or may be currently unemployed. It has been very successful. 

“I am happy to report that three years later we have almost 4,000 people who are now being advised and given guidance to return to get additional credentials so that they can have gainful employment,” said Hartgrove. “There are 1,325 that are now enrolled and getting classes because of UC TN Reconnect and there are 130 that have graduated since this program launched three years ago.”

HEP will transition the management of U.C. Tennessee Reconnect program to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) on July 1 because it cannot be sustained here due to the need for more funding.

As part of the annual meeting, 34 business leaders were recognized for completing the Highland Leaders course. The cohort attended sessions that covered topics on economic development, tourism, workforce development and education, healthcare, and community development and public policy. Leaders recognized were:

Tiffany Anton                         Tyler Atkinson                        Ed Bray

Bobby Buck                            Greyson Carr                         Tim Carr

Stacye Choate                       Liz Higbie                               Craig Hughes

Tracy Hughes                        Jordan Hunter                        Andrea Kruszka

Leslie Loftis                            Colleen Long                         Rebekah Marcum

Justin Matheney                   Lindsay Mills                         Jason Murphy

Matthew Nisbit                      Kendrick Nivens                   Mark Odom

Lisa Officer                            Amanda Perhay                   Amy Profant

Matt Profant                          Wayne Russell                     Kaitlin Salyer

Joshua Stites                        Jenny Thacker                      Heath Thompson

David Vaughn                       Joy Watson                           Tara Wohlgemuth

Mindy Youngblood

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