As businesses become more global and the opportunity to work from anywhere increases, the economic development game has shifted. Companies are looking for a total package when choosing to relocate or expand. But, even in today’s competitive nature, Tennessee keeps reeling in one mega-project after another. The momentum the state has captured is worth a closer look to see why so many companies are choosing to locate and expand in the volunteer state year after year.
Tennessee certainly has notable assets when it comes to its business-friendly climate and location. The right-to-work state collects no personal income tax on wages and salaries, has a long history of fiscal responsibility that crosses party lines and boasts the lowest state debt per capita in the country. The state’s central location is accessible within a day’s drive to the majority of U.S. markets which allows businesses to connect to customers and suppliers quickly.
Infrastructure is in place with more than 95,500 miles of highway and 1,104 miles of interstate, 1,062 miles of navigable waterways, 3,019 miles of main and shortline railroads, 6 commercial airports and 74 general aviation airports and 142 heliports.
Still, companies want more when looking to move or expand their operations.
“The first and last question companies ask during their site visit involves talent,” Williamson, Inc. President and CEO Matt Largen said.
Tennessee has made a commitment to answer that question in a big way, and the efforts in place throughout the state to develop a highly-skilled workforce are numerous.
A focus on workforce development is a priority for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development from the top down. Randy Boyd was named commissioner of the department in January, a clear sign of the commitment Tennessee has to investing both in its business-friendly environment and workforce. Commissioner Boyd’s business background is a clear advantage in his role as Tennessee’s top economic development marketing officer. More than 20 years ago, Boyd founded Knoxville-based Radio Systems Corp., which produces more than 4,600 pet products under brand names such as Invisible Fence, PetSafe, and SportDOG.
Serving as the company’s chairman and CEO, Boyd grew the company to more than 630 employees worldwide with offices in seven countries, and his background as a job creator gives him insight into what the state can do even better to be supportive of the companies who chose to locate in Tennessee.
Workforce development is a big part of that. Commissioner Boyd also served as a special advisor on higher education in 2013 to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. During this time, Tennessee introduced the Drive to 55 initiative to bring the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees or certificates from 32 percent up to 55 percent by the year 2025. These numbers are not just arbitrary goals, and the state has continually looked to invest in workforce development to deliver on that commitment.
With this initiative, K-12 education reform in Tennessee has expanded its focus to be K-J, with the “J” being jobs. This focus beyond high school to include post-secondary education will prepare the workforce for highly-skilled jobs.
A Drive to 55 Alliance has also been created, consisting of private sector partners, leaders and non-profits working together in support of the state’s Drive to 55 initiative. The goal of the Alliance is to help generate greater private sector awareness, ownership and support for the long-term steps needed in college entry and completion, adult education and training, and identifying and closing skills gaps to better prepare its workforce and state for the future. The Alliance actively supports all facets of the Drive to 55 initiative, including leading the charge for Tennessee Reconnect to help recruit and attract more adults back into the state’s higher education system, and Tennessee LEAP, to better align student skills with workforce needs, with an initial focus this year on the launch and implementation of the new Tennessee Promise scholarship program.
The Tennessee Promise program is a tangible investment to deliver a more highly-educated workforce. Through the program, graduating high school seniors in Tennessee are provided with two years of community college or a college of applied technology (TCAT) absolutely free of tuition and fees.
Tennessee is the only state in the country offering that promise, and it’s a promise that’s larger than free tuition. It’s a promise to Tennessee families that education beyond high school is a priority, and it’s a promise to current and prospective employers that when they bring business to Tennessee, they’ll find the support of a devoted and highly- skilled workforce.
These statewide initiatives are producing a steady pipeline of qualified candidates.
“With an educational attainment rate of 54%, nearly twice the national average, Williamson County represents Tennessee at its best when it comes to developing people to meet the future talent demands of our existing employers and employers that are actively considering relocation,” said Largen.
There’s also been a number of innovative education and workforce partnerships created specifically for some of the state’s leading employers. Volkswagen joined forces with Chattanooga State Community College to develop two three-year mechatronics degree programs accredited by the German Chambers of Industry and Commerce. Bridgestone partnered with Motlow State Community College to develop a mechatronics program based on the Siemens Mechatronics Systems approach to advanced manufacturing. It’s the only program in the U.S. to offer a three-step pathway for advanced manufacturing education. Electrolux and the Workforce Investment Network (WIN) partnered to provide training through WIN’s Industrial Readiness Training program. Classes are based upon Electrolux’s specifications and training requirements, and are offered at the Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis. This partnership model ensures that the business community and educators are working hand in hand to meet workforce needs.
“The programs Tennessee have in place are not only attracting higher quality jobs to the state, but also helping grow and develop our citizens’ skill sets so that they are better prepared and can be competitive in the present and future job market,” said Michael Philpot, executive director of West Tennessee Industrial Association. “With workforce and education being vital factors for expansion and new investment in our state, Tennessee is leading the way with a strong commitment to training. The investment Tennessee is making in its people is turning into companies investing in Tennessee. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
Companies looking at Tennessee for their relocation and expansion plans are taking note of the state’s workforce development efforts, and economic development professionals from across the state have commented that it is a hot topic in prospect meetings.
“The progress that Tennessee is making in the area of workforce development is impressive,” said Doug Lawyer, vice president of economic development for the Knoxville Chamber. “I recently was hosting a site visit with a manufacturing prospect, and while touring the empty building, the conversation from the company HR Director turned to labor training. After I had briefed the company on Tennessee’s activities in this realm and what it meant to a company considering a location in Knoxville, the response from the company was ‘wow, lots of states and communities talk about workforce development; it’s nice to see one that is actually doing it.’”
More than ever, offering an educated and highly-trained workforce is part of attracting new business and encouraging existing businesses to expand. Tennessee’s investment on the education front is a direct demonstration of its focus to become the number one location in the Southeast for high quality jobs.
This commitment to talent development has Tennessee well on its way to being known not only for its top-notch companies and products, such as the world’s best whiskeys, FedEx, HCA and Volkswagen, but also known for the Tennessean hands and minds behind them.
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