Pictured: Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals (right) chats with Tennessee Commissioner of Labor & Workforce Development Jeff McCord during the commissioner’s June 2019 visit to Huntsville. Looking on is Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development representative Gary Human.

Huntsville, Tenn. — Scott County hosted Tennessee Commissioner of Labor & Workforce Development Jeff McCord on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.

The commissioner visited Huntsville as part of his statewide listening tour, and joined community leaders and officials to discuss his department’s planned approach to the needs of rural Tennessee while also gathering advice from local leaders.

During the commissioner’s visit, Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals urged the state to consider economic incentives that would benefit hospitals in rural communities.

“We’ve already had 14 hospitals shut down in Tennessee in the last two or three years,” Mayor Tibbals said. “I never see any incentives coming from the Department of Labor to assist rural hospitals. When a hospital closes, industrial recruitment can just be forgotten in that community.”

Mayor Tibbals also addressed the lack of available workers in rural areas.

“Our unemployment rate (in Scott County) is 3.3%,” the mayor said. “Hoorah, but when you look at the work force, only about 48% of eligible workers are in the work force. When you look at it that way, shouldn’t the unemployment rate be 52%? I know there’s disability and legitimate reasons like that. But you have a lot of people who’ve gotten tired of filling out applications and things like that. We have industries starving for employees and we don’t have anything to motivate them to get back into the work force.”

In response, Commissioner McCord said state officials are meeting with federal officials to discuss the so-called “benefits cliff,” which sees some eligible workers decline job opportunities because of the amount of federal benefits they will lose. Ultimately, changes would have to be implemented at the federal level, the commissioner said.

Commissioner McCord said that Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has given the Department of Labor & Workforce Development guidance that centers on three key points: Investment in rural communities, criminal justice reform, and technical education.

“There are a lot of communities that, as the phrase goes, are on the sideline of prosperity,” Commissioner McCord said. As for criminal justice reform, he said, “95% of people who are incarcerated come back into the community so it just makes sense to engage that, and not just pretend that everything is going fine because everything isn’t going fine.” And, on the subject of technical education: “It’s truly a business need. We have ignored and even disparaged that form of education for the past 30 years or so and now we’re in big trouble.”

Commissioner McCord is the second member of Governor Lee’s cabinet to visit Scott County in recent weeks. In May, Tennessee Commissioner of Transportation Clay Bright visited Mayor Tibbals, along with members of his staff.