BY JOHNNY MAGDALENO | DECEMBER 2, 2016
Poverty rates have dropped in Memphis, Tennessee, since the start of the decade, but it’s still one of the poorest large urban areas in the U.S. With 18.4 percent of its 1.3 million residents taking home annual incomes below the federal poverty threshold, it’s second only to Tucson, Arizona, when it comes to lacking opportunity for a living wage.
One local industry could help: medical device manufacturing. And the city was just awarded nearly $6 million from the U.S. Department of Labor to help fortify the system of community colleges, manufacturers and workforce organizations pulling talent from Memphis’ poorest communities to prep them for this booming sector.
Similar cash injections went to 22 similar efforts throughout the U.S. — 18 of which are urban areas with populations greater than 50,000 — as part of President Barack Obama’s community college reimbursement plan, called America’s Promise. The $111 million doled out during this round will help these cities build up the types of cross-sector workforce programs backed by federal law through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, enacted back in 2014. It’ll also help cover community college costs for disadvantaged workers looking for additional training.
Pauline Vernon, of the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce (GMACWorkforce), says her region has been building a pipeline around medical device makers for the past few years. Shelby County hosts the second-largest cluster of these manufacturers in the U.S.
Part of the reason why the region is so attractive to this sector? Expediency. Memphis is home to FedEx’s World Hub, the company’s largest express shipping location.
“If somebody needs a knee replacement on the West Coast tomorrow, it can be manufactured here today and in the surgeon’s hands tomorrow,” says Vernon. “And that’s the basis for a lot of our biomedical facilities here.”
She says this Department of Labor support was “a pretty easy award” to get. Seventeen of the region’s medical device manufacturers formed a nonprofit in March 2015 to tackle the same issues at the core of the America’s Promise program. That coalition, the Greater Memphis Medical Device Council (GMMDC), brought a laundry list of job demands to Vernon and her co-workers.