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MemWorks is uncovering why Memphis’ employment pathways are not working for people experiencing poverty and what we can do to overcome these roadblocks.

As we analyze, listen, and learn, we will post the findings to this page so we can collectively have an accurate understanding of the real reasons employment pathways are not working and the evidence-based solutions that will enable our community to transform access to living-wage careers.

Employment Roadblocks

An analysis of workforce data associated with the population experiencing poverty in Memphis identified several factors that inhibit employment pathways. Below are the most significant roadblocks supported by the evidence.

Employment Roadblocks

An analysis of workforce data associated with the population experiencing poverty in Memphis identified several factors that inhibit employment pathways. Below are the most significant roadblocks supported by the evidence:

An estimated 100,000 Memphians experiencing poverty are in need of academic remediation to access career & technical education that can unlock living-wage jobs.

6 in 10 Tennessee community college students experiencing poverty do not continue after the first year. Numerous compounding factors, such as incidental life expenses and inefficient enrollment processes, can undermine program completion.

To receive the needed services from the over 130 workforce service providers in Memphis, individuals must navigate unwieldy and inefficient systems that frequently require working with multiple organizations across multiple sites.

7 in 10 industry credentials earned by Tennessee K-12 students do not enhance employment outcomes. Limited resources exist to help identify professional aptitudes, match them with living-wage jobs, and prepare for these careers.

Over 110,000 people in Shelby County have had four or more traumatic childhood experiences, increasing the probability of negative employment outcomes as adults. This makes trauma-informed practices critical to career success.

55 percent of working parents in Shelby County have experienced employment challenges due to inadequate childcare. Obstacles accessing costeffective childcare that provides quality early learning limits workforce development and employment opportunities.

Only 3 in 100 people experiencing poverty live near public transit that runs every 15 minutes. Memphis’ low population density makes reliable private transportation necessary to access workforce services and living-wage employers.

1 in 2 adult Tennesseans earning less than $15,000 live with arthritis while 1 in 4 have diabetes. Underserved neighborhoods have few primary care providers, increasing the probability of health complications that make consistent employment difficult.

Nearly 1 in 5 Memphians are food insecure and over 30,000 eviction filings occur annually. Food insecurity and unstable housing arrangements make it nearly impossible to pursue workforce development services, education, and employment.

$1-$2 per hour pay increases that exceed government benefits eligibility can leave individuals more vulnerable. Career progression is disincentivized when increases in compensation are less than the value of the lost government benefits.

Employment Roadblocks

An analysis of workforce data associated with the population experiencing poverty in Memphis identified several factors that inhibit employment pathways. Below are the most significant roadblocks supported by the evidence:

An estimated 100,000 Memphians experiencing poverty are in need of academic remediation to access career & technical education that can unlock living-wage jobs.

6 in 10 Tennessee community college students experiencing poverty do not continue after the first year. Numerous compounding factors, such as incidental life expenses and inefficient enrollment processes, can undermine program completion.

To receive the needed services from the over 130 workforce service providers in Memphis, individuals must navigate unwieldy and inefficient systems that frequently require working with multiple organizations across multiple sites.

7 in 10 industry credentials earned by Tennessee K-12 students do not enhance employment outcomes. Limited resources exist to help identify professional aptitudes, match them with living-wage jobs, and prepare for these careers.

Over 110,000 people in Shelby County have had four or more traumatic childhood experiences, increasing the probability of negative employment outcomes as adults. This makes trauma-informed practices critical to career success.

55 percent of working parents in Shelby County have experienced employment challenges due to inadequate childcare. Obstacles accessing costeffective childcare that provides quality early learning limits workforce development and employment opportunities.

Only 3 in 100 people experiencing poverty live near public transit that runs every 15 minutes. Memphis’ low population density makes reliable private transportation necessary to access workforce services and living-wage employers.

1 in 2 adult Tennesseans earning less than $15,000 live with arthritis while 1 in 4 have diabetes. Underserved neighborhoods have few primary care providers, increasing the probability of health complications that make consistent employment difficult.

Nearly 1 in 5 Memphians are food insecure and over 30,000 eviction filings occur annually. Food insecurity and unstable housing arrangements make it nearly impossible to pursue workforce development services, education, and employment.

$1-$2 per hour pay increases that exceed government benefits eligibility can leave individuals more vulnerable. Career progression is disincentivized when increases in compensation are less than the value of the lost government benefits.

Employment myths

An analysis of workforce data identified a lack of evidence to support several common perceptions about employment in Memphis. Below are several employment myths for the population experiencing poverty:

FACT: 8 in 10 high school graduates do not demonstrate readiness for post-secondary education or a career. In Memphis, a high school diploma does not ensure sufficient math and reading proficiency to pursue the training needed to obtain living-wage jobs.

FACT: Only 1 in 5 tnAchieves scholarship recipients in Shelby County graduate within three years. While financial assistance for tuition is valuable, numerous incidental expenses can undermine the benefits of tuition support.

FACT: Only 30 percent of industry credentials earned by Tennessee K-12 students are associated with jobs that pay at least $15 per hour. Credentials are not helpful when they are not aligned with high-wage, high-demand jobs.

FACT: The rate of people experiencing poverty who are not working but seeking employment is 50 percent higher in Memphis than Tennessee. Identifying the needed workforce services in accessible locations is frequently insurmountable.

FACT: Only 1 percent of neighborhoods in Memphis are considered location efficient, i.e., compact, close to jobs and services, with a variety of transportation choices. Greater investments in public transit alone is not sufficient.

Employment myths

An analysis of workforce data identified a lack of evidence to support several common perceptions about employment in Memphis. Below are several employment myths for the population experiencing poverty:

8 in 10 high school graduates do not demonstrate readiness for post-secondary education or a career. In Memphis, a high school diploma does not ensure sufficient math and reading proficiency to pursue the training needed to obtain living-wage jobs.

Only 1 in 5 tnAchieves scholarship recipients in Shelby County graduate within three years. While financial assistance for tuition is valuable, numerous incidental expenses can undermine the benefits of tuition support.

Only 30 percent of industry credentials earned by Tennessee K-12 students are associated with jobs that pay at least $15 per hour. Credentials are not helpful when they are not aligned with high-wage, high-demand jobs.

The rate of people experiencing poverty who are not working but seeking employment is 50 percent higher in Memphis than Tennessee. Identifying the needed workforce services in accessible locations is frequently insurmountable.

Only 1 percent of neighborhoods in Memphis are considered location efficient, i.e., compact, close to jobs and services, with a variety of transportation choices. Greater investments in public transit alone is not sufficient.

Population Snapshot

Demographic data was analyzed to provide an objective understanding of the population experiencing poverty in Memphis to help inform why employment pathways are not working. Below is a summary across four relevant categories.

Demographics

Youth, women, and Black/African Americans disproportionately experience poverty in Memphis

  • 36 percent of high school teenagers and 34 percent of young adults are experiencing poverty
  • 6 in 10 people experiencing poverty are women while 3 in 4 are Black/African American
  • Two-thirds of people experiencing poverty are not living in households with children
Stability

Food insecurity and housing instability are highly prevalent in Memphis

  • Nearly 1 in 5 people in Greater Memphis are considered food insecure compared to only 1 in 9 across Tennessee
  • Over 20 percent of renters in Memphis faced eviction each year between 2016-2019, with an average of more than 30,000 eviction filings per year
Education

Education attainment alone is not an effective predictor of poverty

  • The rate of Memphians experiencing poverty who have attended some college is the same as those who do not have a high school diploma (1 in 4)
  • Nearly twice as many people with a high school diploma experience poverty in Memphis relative to the Tennessee average (30 percent vs. 17 percent)
  • Nearly 1 in 5 Memphians who have earned an Associate’s degree are still experiencing poverty
Employment

Over 200,000 people in Memphis do not earn a living wage​

  • 1 in 3 Memphians do not earn a living-wage to sustain themselves or their families compared to only 1 in 5 across Tennessee
  • 2 in 3 people experiencing poverty in Memphis are not employed compared to only 1 in 2 in Nashville
  • Nearly 1 in 5 Memphians between the ages of 16-24 years old are disconnected (i.e., not working or in school), 1.5x the national rate

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