Economic Development Depends Upon Early Childhood Development

Chamber of Commerce executives across the country spend their days praising the virtues of their cities in hopes of recruiting new businesses and creating new jobs.

Greater Memphis Chamber President Phil Trenary is no different, but when he talks about the long-term success of his community, his conversation often turns to the importance of early childhood social and emotional development. It’s what makes him a different kind of Chamber leader. He is not bashful about the Chamber’s new activist role in addressing some of Memphis’ most challenging problems.

“While the over-arching goal of the business community is economic growth for all and breaking the cycle of poverty, our immediate objectives at a granular level are a 10% reduction in African American unemployment and a 10% increase in middle class jobs,” said Trenary, pointing to new programs like Harvard Tech, the moniker for the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce. One of its main objectives is to create a high-quality workforce, particularly by connecting the lessons taught at educational institutions to job skills needed by the Memphis market.

Social and Emotional Develop​ment Begins at Birth

“The pivotal factor for our success is the availability of a quality workforce, and it’s #1 by a mile,” said Trenary. “If we’re going to have a reputation for a quality workforce, we have to have an educated populace. As we get more companies coming because we have a great workforce, that’s great for the here and now, but long-term, to transform Memphis, we have to tackle early childhood development, because it is the key predictor for success in education.”

He adds: “But when we talk about early childhood, we don’t talk about just pre-K. We’ve heard the message and we agree with the Urban Child Institute. That’s why we talk about zero to K, because supporting early childhood development has to begin at birth.”

As a result, Trenary sees a continuum: social and emotional skills in early childhood improve educational outcomes, better educated people make a higher quality workforce, and better workers attract more jobs and more investments that reduce unemployment and increase the middle class in Memphis.

Skills Matter, Whether on the Job or at Home

What disturbs Trenary is that the lack of a quality workforce is a “self-inflicted wound” because with the right skills and training, Memphians are among the best when compared to our peer cities.” “Outsiders get it immediately,” he said. “We’re very respectful, very friendly. It’s just who Memphis is. It’s in the water. There’s an underlying decency and goodness that’s a strong point for us. When we can apply skills on top of that, we’re ahead of the game. There’s an inherent desire to do the right thing.”

It’s a point that doesn’t just apply to the Chamber’s economic development agenda. It’s also relevant to early childhood development, because to improve the social and emotional development of our children, parents need the right skills too – how to be a nurturing parent, how to encourage social and emotional competence as the foundation for learning, how to teach self-control and discipline, and how to support brain development.

If Trenary’s idea rings true, Memphis parents would be among the best, translating into better students, better workers, better citizens, and more economic growth for our community. Trenary said: “When we talk about our moon missions at the Chamber, it’s about thinking longer term and asking, ‘how do we make Memphis better?’ That’s where early childhood development comes in.”