Workforce Development & Economic Opportunity

According to statistics provided by the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development in 2016, 4.8% of Tennesseans are unemployed. Additionally, 16.7% of Tennesseans live below the poverty line ($24,250 for a family of four). These numbers tell us that over a million Tennesseans do not have the resources needed to find employment that will properly support themselves or their families. These percentages are rising in Tennessee, while falling nationally. In order to provide more job training and ensure workers in our state are making a living wage, there are some major issues we have to address.


According to TalkPoverty, a project of the Center for American Progress:


  • Tennessee’s income inequality ratio is 15.7%

  • Women make 81 cents to the dollar of what men make

  • 18% of people ages 18-24 are not in school or working

  • Only 37.4% of people ages 25-34 have an Associate’s degree or higher



People currently entering the workforce have less room to grow within their companies than the generations before them. In many cases, they cannot find jobs in the fields in which they received a degree. When a company cannot afford to pay an entry-level employee a living wage, a cycle is created in which new members of the workforce do not have enough on-the-job experience needed to get well-paying jobs in their field.


To help combat this issue and ensure members of the workforce are able to make a living wage, there is a national push to raise the federal minimum wage to from $7.25/hour to $15/hour. Locally, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry has created an initiative called Opportunity NOW. Launched in 2016, this initiative aims to create 10,000 paid internship opportunities for young people ages 14-24 who are entering the workforce and need experience in their field. The Opportunity NOW Fund is housed at The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. You can learn more about it here.


Additionally, Governor Bill Haslam has created an initiative called Drive to 55, which aims to increase Tennessee's percentage of people with a college degree or certificate to 55 percent by the year 2025. Through this initiative, high school students are paired with mentors who help them navigate the college admissions process and apply for scholarships. There is also a program for adults hoping to obtain a more advanced degree or learn a new skillset.


Pay Equity

Across the United States and here in Tennessee, the gap between the income made by the wealthy and the working class is widening. In Tennessee, the income inequality ratio is almost 16%.  A current example of income inequality can be seen between generations. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “Wages for most workers grew exceptionally slowly between 1979 and 2012, despite productivity—which essentially measures the economy’s potential for providing rising living standards for all—rising 64 percent. In other words, most Americans, even those with college degrees, are treading water—despite working more productively (and being better educated) than ever.”


Income inequality can also be seen between genders. In Tennessee, 17.5% of working-age women live below the poverty line. For working-age men, the percentage is 13.8. In 2015, women in our state were making 81 cents to every dollar made by their male colleagues. Nationally, this gap is seen across every income level. According to national Census Bureau data, women are the leading or solo breadwinners in 40% of households. In 1960, women were the breadwinners in only 11% of households, so this number is growing every year. This percentage tells us two things: 1) educated women are catching up with positions typically held by men in the workforce and 2) there are more single moms than ever, and most of them are living near the poverty line.


Gender Pay Gap



Historically, society has driven girls towards being stay-at-home mothers or towards gender-normative careers like secretaries, bookkeepers, and teachers. In recent years, there has been a push to encourage girls to turn their love of math and science into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers. Nashville nonprofit Rock the Street, Wall Street gives young girls the opportunity to be mentored by female finance professionals, with hopes that they will pursue STEM careers as adults.



How You Can Help

  • Make a donation to the Opportunity NOW Fund.

  • Make a donation to the Angel Fund.

  • Visit our related organizations page to learn about local nonprofits connecting Tennesseans to employment.

  • Donate professional services such as dental services, eye care and glasses to remove barriers for employment.

  • Volunteer with organizations that help to improve adult literacy.

  • Support legislation that protects the rights of the working class.

  • Donate your gently-used clothing, books, and household items to Goodwill, which employs thousands of workers with employment barriers, and places thousands more in jobs across Middle Tennessee.

  • Have lunch at Thistle Stop Cafe, which provides employment opportunities for female survivors of prostitution, addiction, and trafficking.

  • Purchase a copy of The Contributor, which creates economic opportunities for people experiencing homelessness.



Updated 12/21/16 by Kathryn Bennett