Chattanoogan.com
February 18, 2013

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) has filed legislation creating an “innovative statewide initiative merging traditional college coursework with technical training to address the skilled labor shortage faced by Tennessee employers.”

Senate Bill 1330 creates the Labor Education Alignment Program allowing students at Tennessee’s technology centers and community colleges the opportunity to combine occupational training in a high-skill or high-technology industry with academic credit and to apply that experience toward a degree.

“I’ve met with a number of industries in high-tech manufacturing ready to expand in Tennessee but for a lack of qualified employees, and I know of many Tennesseans who can’t afford to attend school while sacrificing a paying job,” Senator Norris said. “This promotes the best of both worlds for employers, employees and the economy of Tennessee.”

The legislation is drafted so that wages or other compensation received by students will not impact eligibility for state need-based financial assistance or grants.

Senator Norris and his staff consulted with employers in Tennessee and other southern states, as well as overseas, to study what are referred to as “cooperative education” programs. Students are paid to learn while applying what they learn at work for credit toward a degree.

“This is not unlike the old apprentice programs of generations past, where students get a practical utilization of what they’re learning from the books,” Senator Norris said. “But we’re adding a modern higher education component to address what Tennessee employers keep asking for: job candidates with the requisite skills needed in today’s technologically-advanced workplace.”

Jason Bates, administration manager of Toyota’s Bodine facility in Jackson, stated that industry continually faces the need for qualified workers.

“Despite today’s challenging economic environment, manufacturing facilities all across our state struggle to fill positions with individuals educated in advanced manufacturing,” Mr. Bates said. “Support for education in manufacturing technology is critical for Tennessee’s growth.”

The legislation specifically directs several state entities to work together in both establishing and carrying out the initiative.

“Oftentimes, there is a communications gap between educators and economic developers. LEAP will help coordinate job training between the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Department of Economic and Community Development with higher education,” Senator Norris said. “This will allow us to educate and employ the skilled workers that prospective employers actually need right now.”

Dr. Richard Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, agreed.

“This program recognizes that an important outcome of a student’s education is job opportunity,” Dr. Rhoda said. “Having employers work closely with state agencies creates increased collaboration and focus across the board, giving students the opportunity to attain credentials.”

The bill is sponsored by House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) in the House of Representatives.

Senator Norris represents the 32nd Senate District in Shelby and Tipton Counties.

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