‘People are just ready’: Chamber conference to push jobs amid pandemic, political theater

From the Tallahassee Democrat

Amazon’s announcement this week to create 1,000 new jobs at a new robotics fulfillment center is being celebrated but still falls short of addressing what some see as a workforce crisis in the capital city.

Tallahassee is facing short and long-term challenges. Leon County’s unemployment rate was 5.4% in June, up from 4.5% in May. To meet the state’s lofty goal of creating two million new net jobs by 2030, Leon County’s contribution will need to be 17,994 jobs.

Leon County’s sluggish job growth coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic are perpetual red flags as business and community leaders prepare to talk strategy at this weekend’s conference hosted by the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce in Amelia Island.

Chamber and economic development officials will press the need for more focus on building talent and bridging the gap between job seekers, training and employers.

According to Chamber officials, Leon County’s job growth rate in the past 20 years is 6.1% as compared to many other Florida counties that are seeing 3 to 5 times that rate.

Other counties outperforming Leon County’s job growth rate include Volusia (22%), Seminole (38%), Polk (25%), and Alachua (10%).

Despite concerns surrounding the pandemic, Chamber officials contend Tallahassee is facing a critical time in which collective collaboration and enterprise may have the largest impact.

“People are just ready,” said Sue Dick, the Chamber’s president and CEO. “It’s been a long year and a half. There’s obviously an awareness of COVID and the Delta variant, but individuals realize we have to find a way to navigate through that, be vaccinated and be protecting ourselves.

“But we’ve got to try to get back to the business, the economy and what’s important for our community.”

Earlier this year, the Chamber rolled out its Talent Hub, an online platform that connects career-seekers with employers.

This weekend, the Chamber plans to introduce its “JobsNow” initiative at the conference with the goal of focusing on the workforce challenges, said Chamber Board Chairman Jay Smith, vice president at Ajax Building Company.

“We believe this focus will help ease our chronic poverty and crime problems,” Smith said. “The JobsNow initiative also links the need for education and vocational training to meet our job growth needs.”

The workforce issue isn’t the only topic stirring debate.

The conference comes at a time when the Chamber attempts to trumpet the business community’s resilience, despite the pandemic, while also combating sharp criticism from at least one elected official.

Tallahassee City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow publicly said he would not attend the conference while John “J.T.” Burnette is on trial in a federal corruption case.

Prosecutors say the real estate developer cut deals with former City Commissioner Scott Maddox to kill a hotel project for Burnette’s benefit. Burnette, who has pleaded not guilty, awaits a verdict as of Thursday afternoon.

This isn’t the first time Matlow has gone against the Chamber’s current of creating a unified front, despite running his growing restaurant empire.

Matlow penned a strongly worded column accusing the Chamber of looking the other way at what prosecutors have suggested is a culture of corruption.

His position triggered an unprecedented censure response by the Chamber, which has never been done in more than 100 years. Days before the conference, Chamber officials declined to discuss Matlow.

The growing tension between the Chamber and Matlow, along with others who share his stance, is creating political lines in the sand as the 2022 local elections creep into focus.

In the meantime, weighty issues impacting the health of Tallahassee’s economy will also take center stage at the conference, including crime and poverty.

Leon County Commissioner Brian Welch said he’d like to see pilot programs in high crime areas that focus on job skills, access to resources, mentorship and apprenticeship in trades based skills. Welch said that would a be “a great place to start as economic prosperity is a proven way to end the cycle of crime and poverty.”

“Our crime rate is an indicator of overall quality of life and is closely tied to poverty, education and economic segregation,” Welch said. “We must do better and it is everyone’s responsibility.”

At 20.5%, Leon County’s poverty rate is a harrowing reflection of how many residents in Florida’s capital are living paycheck to paycheck.

Amber Tynan, executive director for United Partners for Human Services, said the working poor are dangerously close to slipping into poverty with one health emergency or unexpected and costly car repair.

“Our community is witnessing and feeling the effects as one of the most economically segregated regions in the country, now more than ever with compounding long-term effects of COVID-19,” Tynan said. “We have all read the articles and seen the reports stating the rate of poverty in Tallahassee is growing and among those most affected are single mothers and people of color.”

Tynan, who told the Democrat she decided not to attend the conference due to COVID-19, said nonprofits are essential to supporting a safety net but adequate funding remains an uphill battle.

“I honestly cannot say that I am confident there will ever be enough funding when there are inequities that exist that perpetuate the cycle of generational poverty and in turn prevent economic mobility,” she said.