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This State Sparkles When it Comes to Highly Skilled Talent

And thanks to the GIVE grant, Tennessee is getting even better at providing a workforce that meet's today's industry needs.

By Teree Caruthers on July 26, 2022

Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) in Jackson
Karen Pulfer Focht

In the Volunteer State, educational attainment and economic development go hand in hand, helping ensure a highly skilled workforce stays ready for the stream of new businesses relocating to Tennessee.

Groundbreaking initiatives, such as the Tennessee Promise, which guarantees two years of free tuition at community colleges and Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) campuses, keep the state atop the list of desirable locations for industry.

In 2019, Gov. Bill Lee added another tool to the state’s workforce development kit by launching the $25 million Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) grant program. The grant awards funds to community collaboratives to develop career pathways for K-12 students and close the skills gaps of the workforce in Tennessee.

Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) in Jackson
Karen Pulfer Focht

A Skills Player in West Tennessee

In West Tennessee, TCAT Jackson was awarded nearly $2 million to develop and enhance educational and career pathways in advanced manufacturing in Madison, Haywood and Hardeman counties.

The funding made it possible to expand dual enrollment and work-based learning programs, help create state-of-the-art workforce development training centers in select high schools and establish an advanced manufacturing educational pipeline at Jackson State Community College and the University of Tennessee at Martin.

“These academic pathways allow students to earn advanced manufacturing certification and workforce training experience within local manufacturing facilities while in high school.”

Kati Thomas Steele, TCAT Jackson

“In many cases, graduates enter TCAT Jackson or our partner colleges, earn additional college credentials and maintain a cooperative learning workforce experience within those same partner manufacturing facilities,” says Kati Thomas Steele, GIVE Grant WBL project coordinator for TCAT Jackson.

Thomas Steele says the dual enrollment partnerships with the counties’ school systems give high school students the opportunity to earn TCAT credit hours that can be applied to advanced manufacturing programs at any TCAT within the state as well as certifications that will qualify them to work in entry-level positions in many local manufacturing facilities.

Jackson-Madison County Schools in Tennessee
Jackson-Madison County Schools

Powerful Partnerships in Tennessee

Funds from the GIVE grant also helped expand the Local Options and Opportunities Program (LOOP) work-based learning effort through Jackson-Madison County Schools.

LOOP pairs high school students with manufacturers — including Stanley Black & Decker, TBDN Tennessee Co., Delta Faucet, Toyota Manufacturing of Tennessee, Owens Corning, BlueScope and Sonoco Products — to give them paid work experience alongside the traditional academic curriculum.

“It’s amazing how many students live or drive by many of our facilities in our town that they don’t even know what happens in there. They don’t know what is being made there, what’s going on, or what jobs are available,” says Nathan Lewis, principal of the Jackson Central-Merry Early College High School, a stand-alone school that enables students to simultaneously earn an associate degree and high school diploma.

Career and technical education (CTE) and LOOP efforts are helping raise awareness of career opportunities, getting students into some of those facilities and allowing them to experience what it’s like to work there.

Stanley Black & Decker, a tool and storage manufacturer with a plant in Jackson, even built a classroom for LOOP students inside its facility.

“STEM education is important for the manufacturing knowledge base among our youth,” says Robert Kirts, GTS energy manager for Stanley Black & Decker. “The LOOP program is unique to Jackson, but we hope it is the beginning of a new trend in manufacturing in the U.S.”

Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) in Jackson
Karen Pulfer Focht

Developing a Strong Workforce in Tennessee

Lewis says the partner companies serve as invaluable advisers not only for LOOP but for all workforce training programs, helping the schools address learning gaps, offering advice about equipment purchases and keeping educators informed of the soft skills and professional competencies necessary for student success.

“It’s a constant exchange of information,” Lewis says. “‘How can we work together? How can we prepare our students to work in your facility? What do you need from us?’ That relationship is something we’re constantly working on.”

The Early College High School building also houses the school system’s workforce development center. Students interested in welding, manufacturing or a career in health care can take classes at their home school for part of the day and get hands-on training in those areas at the center for the other half of the school day. Lewis says the center received close to $500,000 from the GIVE grant to renovate the space and purchase new equipment.

“As a school district, our role is to expose students to careers — especially the careers that are available in the Jackson area — and to give them hands-on experience, whether that’s working with a 3D printer or in a health sciences lab that mirrors a hospital room,” Lewis says. “We want to expose them to as much as possible.”

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