Greater Memphis Chamber CEO Beverly Robertson explains PILOTs (payment in lieu of taxes) – a tool designed to attract companies seeking to expand or relocate. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Memphis Regional Chamber is planning a major career event that has the goal of helping 10,000 citizens secure job training and placement over the next 12 to 36 months. 

More than 60 employers will be on hand to hire on the spot, or offer career enhancement training to under-skilled citizens. The event, UpSkill901, takes place on October 30  at the Pipkin Building, 940 Early Maxwell, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

To spread the word, Memphis Regional Chamber (MRC) is hosting a series of community meetings called “Taking it to the Streets,” an effort to inform underserved communities about the jobs event, and grow awareness about the role of the Chamber. 

The first meeting was held Tuesday (Aug. 13) at the Orange Mound Community Center at 2590 Park Ave. 

“This is my home community and I wanted to launch it here, a historic community that has a lot of pride,” said MRC’s CEO, Beverly Robertson, who was raised in Orange Mound, the first African-American neighborhood in Tennessee built by and for African Americans. 

“For those we can’t hire because they don’t have skills, we’re going to take their data down, we’re going to send it to WIN (Workforce Investment Network), they’re going to assign a case manager, they’re going to assess their ability and put them in an employment pipeline, so at the end, they’ll have a job,” Robertson explained.

Nearly 60 citizens attended the meeting, many of whom were graduates of Melrose High School, which has produced notable alumni, including Robertson.

During her presentation, the Chamber CEO presented Orange Mound demographic data. 

Of its 8,500 population, nearly 50 percent of the residents are 38 years old or younger (not older citizens as widely believed). Although the area has a 13 percent unemployment rate, data indicates that nine percent of the residents hold bachelor degrees, 43 percent work in white-collar jobs, 26 percent serve in blue-collar jobs, and 31 percent are employed in service industries.

Work of the Chamber 

Robertson used PowerPoint visuals to describe the Chamber’s work as the voice of small, midsized and large companies that pay fees for benefits, including public policy advocacy, workforce development and networking opportunities.

She explained PILOTS – payment in lieu of taxes – the agency uses to attract companies seeking to expand or relocate operations. Memphis, she said, must be competitive since nearby cities such as Southaven, MS and West Memphis, AR also offer tax abatements and have the addition of cash as an incentive, which the Chamber does not provide. 

An audience member questioned Robertson on whether companies receiving PILOTS are paying their way.

Richard Smith, Greater Memphis Chamber chairman, said, “we overcomplicate it” when discussing PILOTs (payment in lieu of taxes). (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Richard Smith, president and CEO of FedEx Logistics and chairman of the Greater Memphis Chamber, was on hand to respond.

“The whole business of PILOTs, we overcomplicate it,” Smith said. “It’s no different than in my business. … Do you know what the worst thing to have in my business is? An empty asset; an empty building; an empty truck or an empty plane. 

“What we have to do is fill those assets up. The only question you have to ask yourself about a company asking for a PILOT is this, ‘Are you better with them or without them?’”

Eric Miller, the Chamber’s senior vice president of economic development, described work being done to recruit and retain employers, including making property site-ready for companies, and a Shelby County Government constituent services aide provided an overview of county services.

Robertson closed by drawing the connection between education and job-readiness, and was followed by three male Orange Mound school principals – Brian Ingram of Dunbar Elementary, Michael Henry of Sherwood Middle and Taurin Hardy of Melrose High. Each described special programs offered and plans to interconnect as students advance from one site to another. 

The Chamber will host subsequent meetings in the Frayser and Hickory Hill neighborhoods with dates and times to be announced.

“Information was shared that Orange Mounds needs, especially when it comes to jobs,” said attendee Michael Finley, a former Orange Mound resident who has family residing in the area. 

“It’s great to see the Chamber putting forth effort to inform citizens about companies they are pursuing to bring viable jobs and how they keep employers in the city with incentives.”