Continuing its mission to move Memphis forward, the Greater Memphis Chamber Chairman’s Circle met for a Brain Trust meeting on Oct. 12, 2021, to brainstorm how to create a thriving regional economy.
Kicking off the meeting were Apryl Childs-Potter, the Chamber’s chief marketing officer and the executive director of the new Center for Economic Competitiveness, along with Ryan Donahue from the Brookings Institution. Stepping them through the People Powered Prosperity Regional Benchmark Report, they took Chairman’s Circle investors on a deep dive into the sobering data on how Memphis compares to its peer cities and unveiled aspirational goals for improving Memphis’ competitiveness.
After the data download, Chamber staff members led investors in small group discussions. Here’s a summary of the questions and responses from the discussion portion of the meeting:
“You just heard some interesting data. Now we want to hear your reactions. What is most surprising, frustrating, exciting?”
Confronted with the data of how Memphis is trailing its peers in many key areas, some investors were disappointed, but few were surprised. Many of them said they’re excited, not by Memphis’ rankings, but that the Chamber is using a data-driven approach that will keep the region accountable for its progress. One investor put it this way: “Until you know the truth, like it or not, you can’t really go anywhere.”
The People Powered Prosperity Benchmark gives Memphis a firm foundation on which it can build a strategic plan to grow the region. And through the Center’s research, one thing became very clear: In every single region that is succeeding now, the business community led from the front, in partnership with the public sector.
The data from the Center for Economic Competitiveness shows Memphis’ challenges – but it also shows its opportunities. As shared at the meeting, as well as at the June Brain Trust, Memphis is No. 1 when it comes to the share of IT jobs held by Black and Hispanic people, compared both to its peers and the 53 top U.S. metros. Many investors saw an opportunity to capitalize on this data point as companies around the country struggle to diversify their talent, especially in technology occupations – something the Chamber is already doing as part of its new Memphis Moves marketing campaign.
And while Memphis is next to last for graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) compared to its peers, investors saw an opportunity in its No. 2 ranking for STEM graduate growth.
Another challenging data point that generated significant discussion was Memphis’ low ranking when it comes to attainment of Associate’s and Bachelor’s Degrees.
Through the ups and downs of the data, investors shared their enthusiasm for the Chamber’s focus on increasing the number of companies in advanced industries and for its goal of creating 50,000 new, quality jobs on top of the region’s projected growth.
“Understanding what is already happening in each of these goal areas is important. What programs or initiatives are out there that are already working that could be scaled to help us achieve some of these goals? In addition to what you know is going on in our region, please feel free to share examples from other communities and programs you have read about.”
Chairman’s Circle investors named these programs as ones that are working and could be scaled:
- The Goodwill Excel Center
- Code Crew
- Tech 901
- Shelby County Schools programs that already partner with businesses like FedEx and Smith & Nephew to help grow tech talent.
- INROADS, a STEM non-profit program in St. Louis, MO, that focuses on providing women and minority students with mentors and connects them to a pipeline of available jobs.
“Dreaming big, how can we specifically begin to improve in these areas?”
Chairman’s Circle investors shared a variety of ideas of how the business community could more tightly align with high schools and provide guidance counselors and administrators a second narrative besides “just go to college.” Here are a few of those ideas:
- Providing industry experts who visit classrooms and share their professions with students, exposing them to a new opportunity.
- Lobbying to make it easier for industry experts to become teachers in Tennessee (remove certification barriers through legislative changes.)
- Pairing a student with a company to give them an opportunity to learn from within and offering “beefier” internships which start when students are younger, run longer and teach actual skills.
- Using the Hope Scholarship to keep our students local, by offering to double or triple the scholarship if they stay in Memphis. This way, we won’t lose them to other areas of Tennessee.
- Educating our community about what jobs are available. Market our job market to our kids.
- Educating students, parents, and guidance counselors about the opportunities at our community colleges. There are a lot of kids in middle school and early high school who don’t know what a vocation might look like or what career they may be interested in.
Other “dream big” ideas from investors:
- Develop a rapid rail transit corridor between Shelby County and the Memphis Regional Megasite so people living in Shelby County can work at the future Ford battery and vehicle manufacturing campus known as Blue Oval City.
- Start a construction talent program for the region.
- Combine the governments of Memphis and Shelby County into a single metro government. The Chamber has publicly endorsed creating a charter commission to explore the question of a metro government, and elected officials are currently studying the metro government issue.
In the remaining months of 2021, the Chamber and its investors are going to focus on this question: “How do we make Memphis more competitive for the types of jobs and investments that our investors have asked us to deliver?” Out of these discussions will emerge a strategic growth plan, which will be unveiled at the Chamber’s Annual Chairman’s Luncheon on Dec. 7 at the Peabody Hotel.