Corey Strong: "Memphis has ruthlessly squandered our greatest resource, which is the Black community." (Courtesy photo)

by Corey Strong — 

While Memphis and Shelby County wrestles with how to economically respond to COVID-19 in the short term, I am more concerned with the long term impacts the pandemic will have on our economy.

In the post-COVID world, technology is king and unskilled work forces are susceptible to natural events like a virus, making them ripe to be replaced with automation. The concern was outlined in a 2016 report by the state of Tennessee (https://bit.ly/3dTKQGI) and a 2018 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis (https://bit.ly/2BPCpyG) and has been re-enforced by the pandemic.

An economy built on unskilled labor cannot compete today or in the future. Simply put, the workforce and economy of Memphis and the 9th district are extremely vulnerable.

Black Lives Matter in our economy

Last week, Smart City Consulting wrote a piece (https://bit.ly/3eMVJeF) touching on the issue of vulnerability and pointing out that our condition is one we chose to be in and one we can choose to get out of.  However, the most important point made is that Black Lives Matter, especially as it pertains to the work force of Memphis and the 9th district.

Memphis has ruthlessly squandered our greatest resource, which is the Black community. We treat Black Memphians as a commodity, raw and consumable. Instead, we should be treated as an asset that is worthy of investment. A city, county, and district with this mindset is not hard to imagine but changes must be drastic.

Overall, three crucial ingredients must be present for this future to thrive.

Invest in people

 We must anchor our future in a well-trained workforce. The 9th district and its institutions are woefully behind in technology and IT majors as well as skilled workforce in general. We must invest in these areas immediately to grow local talent.

The crown jewel of this investment would be Lemoyne-Owen College by converting to an IT core curriculum. Changing the core curriculum would allow LOC to maintain its current fields of study while increasing local IT literate black professionals over 100-fold annually.

Next, the University of Memphis should invest heavily in increasing its output of black engineering and technology students through pipeline programs, recruiting, and scholarship dollars.

Finally, skilled workforce training investment must increase in the Shelby County Schools College, Career & Technical Education programs as well in post-secondary programs. I would advocate for both federal and private dollars for LOC and University of Memphis to increase their output of black tech talent. I also pledge to increase the number of local Department of Labor funded apprenticeship providers from under 50 to over 200 in two years.

Invest in places

 Once you create human talent, they will need a place to flourish. We must create innovation and business growth zones in the 9th district.

We must identify black communities that could sustain the footprint of new industries and “Greenline” them for investment opportunities using local, state, and federal dollars. We can also use private and philanthropic dollars through the current Federal Opportunity Zone legislation. The Evergreen Cooperative in Cleveland, OH funded three successful worker-owned cooperative businesses in an impoverished black community by using local, federal, and private funding.

Our local investment vehicles such as TIF’s and PILOTs would be best served creating similar opportunities in black communities for businesses with high ceilings. I would commit to directing every federal vehicle possible towards such zones and present legislation that makes dollars more accessible to businesses with less capital.

 Invest in ideas

 Only after you have the talented people and attractive locations can you attract big ideas. We must invest in ideas in growth sectors and industries of the future.

Green technology, biomedical technology, industrial automation, automotive and cyber security are just some industries that are poised for significant growth and disruption over the next decade. Our district is prime location to grow or attract entrepreneurs in any of these industries.

Plus, these industries offer entry level jobs of $75,000 or more with the proper training. We must announce we are looking to grow in this way and we must put our dollars in to both attracting and incubating this caliber of entrepreneurial venture.

We have a history of firsts when it comes to innovative entrepreneurship and ideas, such as Piggly Wiggly, Holiday Inn, AutoZone and FedEx. We are positioned to do it again and I commit to being an ambassador for a 9th district growth plan to industry leaders in Washington.

Memphis and the 9th Congressional district have changed the world many times and have more talent on any given day than any place in the world. I believe there is more treasure in our Black communities that simply needs recognition and investment to grow and make the 9th Congressional district competitive for the future.

(Corey Strong is an educator, Commander in the Navy Reserves, and candidate for Tennessee’s 9th Congressional District.)