Tester, chairman of Carter County Tomorrow, the county's economic development agency, knows of what he speaks. Wages in Carter Counter are generally 15 to 20 percent lower than Northeast Tennessee's average. And Northeast Tennessee's average is 15 percent lower than the state's, and 19 percent lower than the nation's.
Says Tester, "It all boils down to education. If you have an educated workforce, all those things — higher pay, economic recruitment and business expansion — come hand-in-hand."
Ken Rea of the First Tennessee Development District says much of Northeast Tennessee's job growth has come from the retail and restaurant sales sectors which typically pay less. As well, companies in the high-value manufacturing jobs sector have kept staffing levels and pay low through the recovery, either by introducing more efficient, automated processes or by denying employees raises.
With an increase in manufacturing technology and a need for well-educated operators for higher-tech machinery and systems, Rea said the skills of the local employee pool could be holding down wages, as well.
A need often echoed by economic development officials, he said training programs could help to raise local manufacturing workers' pay.
An example is a worker at Ball Corporation in Bristol, which recently announced it is shutting down the plant there in a staged process through next year. That worker has done his homework and found that among the highest paying jobs in this area are those in the health care field. And so, at age 45, he would like to go back to school and enter the nursing field.
But how to pay for it.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage paid by employers in the five-county area of Sullivan, Washington, Carter, Unicoi and Johnson was $38,417 in 2014. That's 15 percent lower than Tennessee's average of $45,173, and 19 percent lower than the U.S. average of $47,230.
In Carter County, the county and other stakeholders, including local employers, have partnered with the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Elizabethton to help equip workers with the skills they'll need in the modern workforce. Tester said the participating companies, including Snap-On Tools and Trane, have been able to produce tailor-made programs through the trade school to teach specific skills for available jobs.
Economic development agencies in the region have also begun foundational conversations to partner on future programs, Tester said. Attracting new industry takes time and a lot of investment. But there's only so much money, and retraining workers, or assisting them to get retrained, must remain a primary focus for the region.
Those efforts should be expanded.
The Tennessean, Nashville, on tourism and discrimination in the state
Tennessee is becoming an increasingly popular destination for tourists.
Revenue from tourism in 2014 broke records, with a 6 percent year-over-year increase in the tourism industry to $17.7 billion and sales tax revenue exceeding $1.5 million - a 7 percent increase from the year before.
That's good news. And it's good news that the Nashville municipal area is a welcoming place embracing diversity in all forms.
That is precisely why our community needs to send a strong message that while we welcome people of all sorts and backgrounds, we do not want to be known as a destination for people who discriminate against others or seek to oppress or harm others.
The Southern Poverty Law Center learned that the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist organization, planned an annual event in Nashville this weekend.
That group was cited as an inspiration by Dylann Roof, who is charged with murdering nine congregants at the historically black Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.
The CCC made reservations at the Guesthouse Inn, which told The Tennessean on Thursday that it had canceled them. CCC board member Brad Griffin confirmed to The Tennessean that the group had been refunded its money and did not plan to hold its event in Nashville.
"This is definitely not what the Guesthouse Inn represents," Guesthouse Inn Director of Sales Michelle Jameson told The Tennessean on Thursday.
Jameson had said the decision was made by the hotel after "it was brought to our attention to what this group might possibly be."
Griffin disavowed any link with Roof and criticized the groups threatening to protest the hotel had the council met there.
"The most outrageous thing about this is you have these people posturing as civil rights groups when their real agenda is taking away the civil rights of others," Griffin said.
Undoubtedly, this was not an easy short-term business decision, given the lost revenue. In the long term, though, it will have been the right thing to do.
In 2014 the SPLC's HateWatch blog named Tennessee a "hate tourism mecca" because a handful of white supremacist groups held events throughout the state.
The term "mecca" is unfortunate given the recent history of discrimination leveled at the growing Muslim community in Middle Tennessee and beyond. Think about the resistance to the mosque in Murfreesboro this past decade.
What has drawn people to Nashville, especially, has been its embrace of people of all sorts, which has led to the city's growth and prosperity.
That's what makes this community so special.
Johnson City Press on state tuition grants.
East Tennessee State University was recently awarded a $95,000 grant to aid veterans who wish to enroll in classes. The allocation is part of $1 million in competitive tuition grants for veterans going to 11 state colleges and universities.
These grants are part of Gov. Bill Haslam's "Drive to 55" initiative designed to increase the number of Tennesseans with a certificate or degree beyond high school. Certainly, helping veterans to earn a degree that will increase their earning potential is a worthy goal.
That being said, however, we would also like to point out there are other Tennesseans who deserve the same chance.
Earlier this week, Assistant News Editor Nathan Baker reported that wages in our region lag behind those paid to employees in other parts of this state and nation. One reason for this, officials say, is a lack of education among the area's workforce.
Given the current employment environment, the only practical option available to low-wage workers looking to improve their earning power is to return to school. Unfortunately, earning an advanced degree has become increasingly expensive in Tennessee. That's why the number of non-traditional students enrolling in state colleges and universities has declined in the last decade.
These non-traditional students are often supporting families by working jobs that pay salaries that make them ineligible to receive many of the grants and scholarships available to others.
Tuition hikes have priced higher education out of the reach for many high school graduates. Some of these Tennesseans might be lucky enough to find the opportunity to learn a skill or trade that will help them to land a good-paying job.
Others, however, will simply end up in jobs that pay a minimum wage. Like veterans, these non-traditional students also deserve a helping hand from the state.