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Workforce Programs, Partnerships Help Tennessee Stay Ahead of the Game

State's workforce programs and private-public partnerships stock Tennessee's talent pipeline

By Teree Caruthers on March 18, 2018

Tennessee / Courtesy of Volkswagen Chattanooga

Tennessee has boasted record job growth over the last decade, thanks in large part to a winning combination of location, logistics and a high-quality workforce.

The ace in the state’s winning hand is the deep pool of talent from which relocating and expanding businesses can readily pull. At the center of Tennessee’s workforce development strategy is Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative, which aims to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees or certifications to 55 percent by the year 2025.

Through Drive to 55, the state established the Tennessee Promise, which allows high school graduates to attend any state technical or community college for free, and Tennessee Reconnect, which targets working adults and allows them to earn a degree or certification free of tuition and fees.

The effort is paying off. The number of Tennesseans with a bachelor’s degree or higher, for example, increased by 5.1 percentage points, from 23.4 percent to 28.5 percent between 2015 and 2016.

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Working the Program

“What it comes down to is if we want to convince employers to invest in Tennessee and not just employers that might be in the recruiting pipeline, but also recruiters that are already here, then we really have to show them that we have the workforce to make those investments worthwhile,†says Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

The Drive to 55 initiative has helped increase enrollment at higher education institutions across the state, including Northeast State Community College in Blountville.

“Our enrollment of students right out of high school has gone up, and we’re able to interact with those students and help them on their career pathways. We’ve got students starting earlier on that pathway as opposed to meandering around and then coming back to us later,†says Jeff McCord, the college’s vice president for economic and workforce development.

Studying the Field

McCord says the college takes a three-pronged approach to workforce development – the first being an understanding of the needs of employers in the region. The second and third prongs are building interest among students in in-demand fields and working with regional economic development organizations to help recruit new business to the area.

“We do a lot of work in what we call pipeline development. That pipeline development might include an advanced manufacturing camp for middle schoolers, for example. Students can tour different facilities to learn more about careers in IT and health care, and a myriad of other fields they might not be aware of,†McCord says. “We can extend our reach as early as kindergarten, and this exposure is not only good for students, but also for their parents and teacher and their counselors.”

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Another driver of Tennessee’s strong workforce has been partnerships developed between industry and educational institutions.

Chattanooga State Community College, for example, worked with Volkswagen to develop a mechatronics program that will equip students with skills needed to work for the car manufacturer. Likewise, Nissan partnered with the Tennessee College of Applied Technology to open a $35 million campus and training center in Rutherford County to provide training in areas such as automobile technology, electrical and small diesel repair, welding, and industrial electrical maintenance.

Tire manufacturer Bridgestone Americas partnered with Motlow State Community College to establish the North America Manufacturing and Education Center at the Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations La Vergne Plant. The partnership also led to the establishment of a mechatronics program at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis.

“There is a large and looming skills gap that we are facing with the anticipated retirement of many of our skilled knowledge workers,†says Emily Richards, director of communications for Bridgestone Americas. “At the same time, careers that require STEM-related skills continue to increase. It is vitally important that we grow interest and participation in STEM education so Bridgestone – and other companies – are able to recruit and retain the highly skilled workers that will drive our future.”

What it comes down to is if we want to convince employers to invest in Tennessee … then we really have to show them that we have the workforce to make those investments worthwhile.

Mike Krause
executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission
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