Tennessee has proven itself to be a hub for innovation in healthcare, technology and beyond. Private-public partnerships like LaunchTN have attracted startups and a bustling entrepreneur community, while traditional industries have remained strong. More than 900 auto suppliers have moved aspects of their operations to Tennessee, including three major automotive manufacturing assembly plants: Nissan in Smyrna, General Motors in Spring Hill and Volkswagen in Chattanooga. In fact, the state boasts the largest concentration of automotive industry employment in the South. Big name corporations like FedEx, Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), Dollar General, Eastman, AutoZone, Bridgestone Americas, Inc., Tractor Supply, Asurion and more have made Tennessee their home.
In 2015, an additional 161 companies committed to bringing business to Tennessee. Combined, these pledges represent a record $5.5 billion in capital and 25,837 new jobs for the state. Business in the Volunteer State is booming.
To stay competitive and land the best employers, Tennessee has found ways to ensure that it continue to have the best people to do the best jobs. Enter the Drive to 55 – the initiative to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025.
Launched in 2013, the Drive to 55 initiative was born out of the insight that an estimated 55 percent of jobs will require some kind of post-secondary education certificate by 2025. On its former track, the state would not have been able to meet the demands of current or future employers, a hurdle to attracting new businesses. However, with the innovative Drive to 55 and related programs, Tennessee has become a leading example in the alignment of education and workforce development. The Drive to 55 is already producing a steady pipeline of qualified candidates for Tennessee companies for years to come.
The historic effort between state agencies and private employers, as well as between public schools and economic development organizations, to partner together and prioritize education reform is impressive. This begins in kindergarten through 12th grade and expands into post-secondary education efforts. Stakeholders include the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Tennessee Department of Education, Tennessee Department of Human Services, Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology and community colleges and as well as all of the state’s public four-year universities.
Tennessee is the only state with such a devoted and diverse group of stakeholders geared toward supporting an all-encompassing workforce development goal, and it is working. More than 4.3 million Tennesseans over 18 have a high school degree or higher, and the state had 2.8 million individuals employed in July 2015.
“In Memphis we have gone ‘all in’ on workforce development, especially in the area of vocational and technical training,” said Mark Herbison, senior vice president of economic development for the Greater Memphis Chamber. “In 2015, we launched the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce that is reintroducing vocational and tech training in all of our high schools and offering college credit for that training and aligning the needs of our employers with our training institutions. We are also working very hard in Memphis to market these skilled trade occupations to our students.”
According to a recent report by the Center for Economic Research in Tennessee (CERT), Tennessee workers with new degrees are projected to earn $9.33 billion annually more in income than what they would have earned without the push to increase post-secondary credentials. The shared commitment to connect resources and align the mission between agencies is one that clearly benefits the state as a whole. Looking forward, Tennessee’s workforce development programs will seek to expand and improve upon the number of graduates with sought after skills.
The Tennessee Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP) is just one initiative that aims to ensure that the state is accurately identifying those skills and preparing for employer needs. In 2015, the program distributed $10 million in grant funds that supported local alignment groups. Those local groups are tasked with determining workforce needs and developing programs aimed at narrowing the gap between skills and preparedness.
Tennessee Promise, a statewide scholarship and mentoring initiative, is also having a profound impact on readiness. The program provides last-dollar scholarships to high school graduates in an effort to encourage more students to enroll in college. Along with covering the first two years of tuition and fees that government financial resources don’t fund, the program provides personal mentors who support students as they navigate degree requirements at any community or technical college in Tennessee. Last fall, 16,291 students enrolled in the program, which increased overall Tennessee public higher education enrollment by 10 percent in just one year.
Most recently, workforce development led to the launch of the Tennessee Reconnect program in early January. The program targets the roughly one million adults throughout the state who completed some college coursework, but never completed a post-secondary degree or credential. As part of the program, Tennessee adults can attend any one of the state’s 27 Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs) free of tuition or fees to earn a diploma or certificate. By re-engaging these individuals, the state hopes to increase the number of non-traditional students who are returning to school to finish their education, creating a larger skilled workforce to support growth.
“Each initiative we have is geared towards engaging a different population in hopes of creating a diverse labor pool with long-term sustainability,” said Brian Hercules, vice president of economic development for the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce. “When new jobs come to Tennessee, we want to have equipped Tennesseans to get the positions, to live and work in the communities where they want to be.”
Successful partnerships have already been established with large corporations around the state. A prime example of how Tennessee’s automotive industry is creating these types of synergies is Nissan North America, one of the state’s largest employers, headquartered in Smyrna. The Fortune 500 company partnered with the Industrial Maintenance Program at Tennessee College of Applied Technology to train and recruit maintenance technicians. In Chattanooga, Volkswagen teamed up with Chattanooga State Community College to develop two different mechatronics degree programs, providing customized training that combines courses focused on electronics and mechanical engineering. Bridgestone created a similar partnership with Motlow State Community College based on the Siemens Mechatronics Systems. Bridgestone’s program is the country’s only three-step pathway for advanced manufacturing education.
“We want to spread the message to employers that if you bring your business, it will flourish.” said Clay Walker, CEO of NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership. “There will be a skilled workforce to meet your hiring needs, a supportive community and opportunities to mentor these students, who may turn into future employees.”
Overall, the innovative partnerships that Tennessee and its leaders have developed are setting a strong example for workforce development initiatives around the country. Businesses will continue to come to Tennessee, making the Volunteer State home to a variety of industries and trades. When they do, Tennesseans will be ready.
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