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Tennessee Talent Grows from the Inside Out

Industry partners with local schools, colleges to give students hands-on training to fill in-demand jobs.

By Teree Caruthers on June 1, 2020

Tennessee EDG
Tennessee / Jeff Adkins

Businesses across the state are working to fill their workforce gaps, and Tennessee has been on the lead lap in developing innovative programs to help them meet their talent needs.

Initiatives, such as Tennessee Promise, offer two years of community college tuition-free to qualifying high school graduates. In addition, the state’s higher education institutions and major employers have partnered on unique workforce development programs.

In the Chattanooga area, companies are partnering with local schools and community colleges to grow their talent base from the inside through internships, apprenticeships and other hands-on training programs.

Tennessee EDG
Tennessee / Jeff Adkins

Building a Workforce

Volkswagen Group of America teamed up with the Engineering and Information Technologies Division at Chattanooga State Community College to establish Volkswagen Academy, which offers a degree in robotics technology. Students who enroll earn the degree through a combination of classroom and lab instruction as well as paid hands-on training at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga manufacturing plant.

“The Volkswagen Academy is a great example of how we’ve partnered with industry to create apprenticeship training opportunities for students so that they can get an education and learn valuable workforce skills simultaneously,†says Bo Drake, vice president of economic and workforce development at Chattanooga State Community College.

“It’s programs like this that we really want to amp up, promote and see proliferated throughout Tennessee.”

Tennessee EDG
Tennessee / Jeff Adkins

Creating Opportunities 

Community colleges like Chattanooga State play a critical role in workforce development and are poised to be the backbone for the workforce as the country moves forward in a rapidly changing economy, Drake says.

“Workforce development today is about creating access to opportunity and unlocking the potential within our communities,†Drake says.

Discover Tennessee

In 2018, Chattanooga State launched its first registered college-sponsored apprenticeship program. Drake says the college recognized that not all businesses wanting to participate in an apprenticeship program had the capacity to manage the program on their own. Chattanooga State took on the administrative burden of the program and made it scalable, allowing smaller businesses to hire as many or as few apprentices as needed.

Tennessee EDG
Tennessee / Jeff Adkins


The apprenticeship program is just one example of the school system working to meet the needs of the business community. In 2018, the Hamilton County Department of Education (HCDE) established the Future Ready Institutes within its high schools. Each Future Ready Institute offers a curriculum focused on a different segment of the region’s economy, from health care and engineering to IT and manufacturing. The curriculum is designed to introduce students to those fields through classroom training while offering them real-world experience.

“We have selected those institutes based on what workforce development data told us are the greatest needs – information technology, health sciences, hospitality and tourism, engineering, construction and manufacturing, for example,†says Blake Freeman, director of Future Ready Institutes for Hamilton County Schools.

Opportunity is Growing in Tennessee

The school system also works with Chattanooga State to develop more apprenticeship programs around the Future Ready career pathways.

“Our schools are working to increase workforce development through meaningful engagement with local businesses so that we can capture what those workforce development needs are and then use that information effectively to create opportunities in our career and technical education pathways that meet that demand,†Freeman says.

Tennessee’s Creative Force is One to Be Reckoned With

A Smart Start

The HCDE partnered with Gestamp, a manufacturer of automobile parts, to establish the first work-based learning program in the state to earn the U.S. Department of Labor’s registered apprenticeship designation. Students enrolled in the program spend half their day with employees at the Gestamp plant and the other half in an on-site learning lab taught by an HCDE instructor. Students are paid for their work.

Successful students in the program have the opportunity to become full-time employees with benefits and take advantage of Gestamp’s tuition reimbursement program if they decide to go to college.

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