As I approach my final week, I want to share a few thoughts with you.
It is hard to imagine a better job than serving as commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development for the people of Tennessee. I will be forever thankful to Governor Haslam for this unique opportunity to serve our state and know you will be, too.
Every day you work with people in the department, our colleagues in state and local governments, business and community leaders all across the state that will inspire you. They are passionate and hardworking and determined to make Tennessee a better place to live, work and do business.
My predecessor Bill Hagerty blessed me with a great team and great momentum, and I have tried to pay it forward.
We have had the best two years in economic development in the history of our state — with nearly 50,000 new jobs committed and $10 billion in new investment. These are not just new jobs, but better paying jobs. In the last year, the average hourly wage of TNECD’s job commitments increased from $20.83 to $22.05 per job. We’re ranked No. 1 in the nation for advanced industry job growth, No. 1 in foreign direct investment, and second in the nation in the growth of household median incomes. Unemployment has dropped from 6.2 to 4.8 percent, and there are more Tennesseans working now than ever before in our state.
But unfortunately, you need to know that success isn’t equally shared all across our state, and we must continue to help those most in need, particularly in our rural communities. That’s why I appointed our state’s first assistant commissioner for rural development, and why we worked to pass the Rural Economic Opportunity Act to provide additional funds for industrial sites and tourism development in dozens of rural communities across the state.
We also created, and co-chaired with Tourist Development Commissioner Kevin Triplett and Agriculture Commissioner Jai Templeton, the Governor’s Rural Task Force, a grassroots initiative to bring even greater success to our rural communities. The proposals we have made, if approved, will make a huge impact in everything from education to site development to broadband connectivity to entrepreneurship in these communities. One of the biggest challenges is the digital divide in our state. While 2 percent of residents in the large cities lack broadband access, 34 percent lack it on average in our rural communities. So we’ve worked hard to find innovative partnerships and solutions to help bridge that gap.
There have been other foundations I hope you can build on, too. While we ranked No. 1 in foreign direct investment nationally, we have sought to build on that lead by opening 10 new offices around the world to attract even more investment. We are also proud of the creation of CERT, the Center for Economic Research in Tennessee, a team of researchers that have provided in-depth research and analysis into many subjects and will be an asset not only to TNECD’s many partners, but to the state for years to come.
At the same time, we’ve tried to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars. And in keeping with Governor Haslam’s focus on fiscal responsibility, we have done our share.
In the last two years, we reduced the head count in the department by almost 10 percent and reduced the office space we use by 50 percent — saving over $600,000 per year in rent. We did this partially by knocking out all the walls and moving desks, like mine, from large private offices to create an open office. But this new environment is not just physical, it’s also cultural. We now have one of the most open, transparent and collaborative organizations in state government, a culture I hope continues for decades to come.
But despite all of this progress, there is still much more work to do. And here are a few recommendations I would like to make:
Focus on the right jobs in the right places. It is essential that we continue to focus on helping those communities that are struggling and lack local resources. With state unemployment at 4.8 percent, it’s no longer about any job anywhere. It’s about the right jobs in the right places. Where unemployment is low and labor is tight, focus on bringing in even higher paying jobs. And for those areas where unemployment remains high, we must double our efforts to attract jobs where we need them most. We have made great strides, but there is still much left to do. There are 17 distressed counties among the 95 counties in our state, and we should not rest until we bring down their unemployment and have zero distressed counties.
Know your product. My dad taught me to sell electric fencing when I was 16 years old, and he stressed how important it was to know your product. Over the years I’ve learned how true that is. There is nothing worse than a salesman who doesn’t know his product. In this case, your product is the people and places of Tennessee. And the only way you are going to get to know them is to visit them in their communities.
While serving as commissioner, I visited all 95 counties touring industrial sites, spec buildings and schools, and meeting with local government and business leaders in each one. The hours and travel can be tough, but you will find those visits to be one of the most important and rewarding parts of the job. There’s not a community I visited that I didn’t leave being more proud of our state and our people. They are truly inspiring and energizing!
Education = workforce = jobs. In nearly every meeting with a prospect or existing business, the conversation was dominated by workforce questions. And now through Governor Haslam’s nationally-recognized and game-changing Drive to 55 initiatives like Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect, we can guarantee the very best talent pipeline of any state in the country. It’s become our biggest differentiator and single best sales tool. ECD plays a critical role in working with our education partners to make sure they know the needs of the workplace and are better aligned to serve our state. There is no more critical work you can do than helping develop these linkages.
So how much will you work and what will you spend your time doing? I was actually curious myself how the hours broke down, so I went back and analyzed the calendar the past two years. (please see the chart at the end.)
On average, I was working about 69 hours each week doing my best to serve our state. About a third of the time, I was traveling – visiting local communities and industries to learn their needs and giving speeches – or flying across the nation or around the world to promote our state. Another third of my time, I was busy on the phone or email following up and coordinating with local leaders, companies, prospects or our TNECD team. The final third of my time was spent in meetings — with state and regional stakeholders so important to our success, our TNECD team, or meeting with Governor Haslam or other cabinet members to help secure, facilitate and streamline projects.
Yes, the days and hours can be long, but there is nothing more rewarding than working with your team to bring more and higher paying jobs to the people of Tennessee. And while all jobs are great, sometimes you also have the opportunity to bring them to a community that hasn’t seen many new jobs in recent years, and that is incredibly satisfying.
Working with small towns to develop industrial sites, fix up their downtowns, or invest in needed water systems is a critical part of the work. Businesses don’t want to work where they don’t want to live, and making our communities more livable is essential. So never overlook the “community” part of the department’s name.
As a longtime Boy Scout leader, I try to live my life by the “Code of the Outdoors” and always “leave every place a little better than I found it.”
I hope we’ve left the department and the state in a better place and left you with a strong foundation from which to continue to build a more economically vibrant state — with greater opportunities for all Tennesseans.
You are incredibly fortunate to work for an outstanding governor and amazing state — and with such a talented and hardworking team. I look forward to reading your letter to your successor in a few years and am confident you will continue to pay it forward. Good luck and God bless.