By Richard Locker,
July 5, 2013

NASHVILLE — State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris visited BMW’s corporate headquarters during an economic tour of Germany by a group of Southern state legislators last November. At BMW, he learned about the automaker’s long-running apprenticeship program, which retains more than 90 percent of its recruits for careers at the company.

About the same time, Gov. Bill Haslam was concluding seven roundtable discussions among business leaders and educators in regions across Tennessee about how to match what students learn at state higher education institutions with the skills that employers need.

Norris, R-Collierville, participated in the West Tennessee discussions, where he heard employers large and small say they need better trained and educated workers.

Norris, a lawyer, drafted a bill himself to try to accomplish that, enacting the Labor Education Alignment Program, or LEAP, that he and others shepherded through the General Assembly this year with the backing of the Haslam administration and the state’s higher education governing boards.

LEAP is a statewide comprehensive program to provide students at community colleges and the former Tennessee Technology Centers — which were renamed Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology on July 1 — the opportunity to combine occupational training in a high-skill or high-tech industry with academic credit applied toward post-high-school credentials. Students would take academic courses tailored for careers and work in paid apprenticeships and get academic credit for both.

The Tennessee Board of Regents is developing the curriculum now, working with the state Department of Labor & Workforce Development and the Department of Economic & Community Development — agencies that recruit new jobs and train workers for them. The Board of Regents governs Tennessee’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology and six universities outside the University of Tennessee system.

Norris said he believes LEAP was one of the most significant programs enacted by the 2013 legislature, even if it received little publicity.

“It’s work, earn and learn. The goal is to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with a postsecondary credential — an associate degree or higher — from 32 percent now to 55 percent by 2025,” Norris said.

That’s the goal of Haslam’s “Drive to 55” initiative, in which he cites studies showing that by 2025, at least 55 percent of jobs in the state will require some level of higher education. “The risk is that Tennessee doesn’t prepare the graduates that we need for the workforce and all these businesses that we’re recruiting go somewhere else. It’s really that simple,” the governor told business and education leaders when he kicked off the series of discussions last July at the governor’s residence.

The new LEAP law requires a curriculum focused on high-skill jobs, emerging occupations and skilled manufacturing jobs, including advanced manufacturing, electronics, information technology, infrastructure engineering, and transportation and logistics. Some will be offered to students starting in 2014.

“The idea is very basic and sound and that is to make sure that the workforce needs of the state are well communicated to the educational institutions that can then train students and provide them with the skills that are needed back in the workforce,” said Dr. Richard Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which is coordinating LEAP.

“So there’s nothing really magical about it other than that it gives us a framework and a structure that’s been missing up until now.”

Rhoda said one of the first courses under development is in advanced manufacturing, “And we’ll look to employers across the state of what other areas are needed. Mechatronics (a combination of mechanical, electrical and computer engineering) is one. The campuses — primarily the new colleges of applied technology and the community colleges are really the ones we are looking to because they are going to provide that level of skill that industry needs. What they offer will vary across the state. As we get into this, you’ll see apprenticeships, co-op programs and other things.”

Students who decide to advance will also be able to apply the academic training and work experience they’ve received toward associates’ and bachelors’ degrees.

Norris’ co-sponsors on the bill included Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis; House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga; Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis; and Reps. Karen Camper, G.A. Hardaway, Antonio Parkinson and Johnnie Turner, all Memphis Democrats. It won Senate approval 32-0 and House approval 96-0.

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