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Tennessee Takes Talent to New Levels

Groundbreaking college and apprentice programs prepare workers to excel.

By Cary Estes on June 16, 2021

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Sarah Grace Scott

The outline of the state of Tennessee looks a bit like a giant arrow, which is appropriate, because when it comes to developing a skilled workforce, the state can definitely point people in the right direction.>

Tennessee’s commitment to use education to bolster the state’s workforce helps meet the talent needs of a variety of business sectors.>

That is the primary objective of Tennessee’s Drive to 55 Alliance, an initiative that aims to ensure that at least 55% of the state’s population has either a college degree or certificate by the year 2025.>

Included in the initiative are the Tennessee Reconnect program, which helps adults attend a community or technical college tuition-free, and the Tennessee Promise scholarship program, which makes it easier for high school graduates to attend college.>

In addition, ApprenticeshipTN offers more than 380 programs designed to teach the specific skills needed for various careers.>

“The teaching starts with the K-12 system, continues all the way up through skill development, and really doesn’t stop until retirement,” says Tyra Copas, ApprenticeshipTN director. “All of us are working together to grow a talent pipeline for employers – whether that’s getting them in the door or upscaling them – to meet the hiring needs.”

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Sarah Grace Scott

Creating a Promising Future

A key component to these efforts is Tennessee Promise. When the program was launched in 2015, Tennessee became the first state to offer high school graduates two years of community or technical college tuition-free.

The program, which has enrolled more than 88,000 students, also provides mentors and other resources to help students navigate the transitions from high school to college to the working world.

Sarah Grace Scott, a 2017 graduate of South Gibson County High School in Medina, calls Tennessee Promise “a bridge to success.” Scott used the program to enroll in Jackson State Community College, then transfer to the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis to pursue a degree in dental hygiene.

“It was a very easy process,” Scott says. “Everything is very organized and laid out. They help you with every single step in the process and never let you miss anything.

“And you have doors open to all these opportunities like job fairs, volunteering, research, tutoring and faculty recommendations. Anything you need, they have it. It’s an awesome program, and I’m so very thankful for it.”


Apprenticeships Take Shape

In addition to increasing the number of residents who have some form of post-secondary degree or certification, the state of Tennessee also wants to ensure that those graduates possess the precise skills needed by businesses throughout the state.

That is where the ApprenticeshipTN program comes in.

ApprenticeshipTN is an initiative established in 2019 involving seven state agencies, including the College System of Tennessee, which is a collection of 40 community and technical colleges. The initiative’s Office of Apprenticeships works directly with employers and community associations and organizations to implement new training programs.

“Every program is tailor-designed for an employer,” Copas says. “While manufacturers may have similar jobs, the equipment they use or their work processes might be different. We identify what a program should look like based on the employer’s needs, then they design exactly the program that they want. And we can set up pre-apprenticeship programs in the high schools, colleges and through adult education programs.”


Ace Electric, a Georgia-based company, has been using ApprenticeshipTN to fill positions at its branch in Jackson, TN. Training manager Greg Register says the program is the best he has experienced.

“Tennessee’s apprenticeship program is head and shoulders above the others,” Register says. “There’s an aging workforce out there, and we’re having to train our replacements. This program is really beneficial for us to be able to do that. It’s an awesome tool for us.”

Copas says there has been a 27% growth rate in the number of apprentices in Tennessee since the program started, with nearly 50 new sponsor programs.

“Employers love this program because of the opportunity to build a reliable talent pipeline,” Copas says. “It eliminates that model of waiting two or three months to see who applies, and then to get someone in the door. Instead, they’re guaranteed to immediately get qualified candidates for their jobs.”

Want to learn more about relocating to Tennessee? Check out the latest edition of the Tennessee Economic Development Guide.


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