LEAP grants aim to fill void in Tennessee workforce

On October 12, 2015, in News 2015, by Mark Norris

October 12, 2015

LIVINGSTON — On a bright October morning in a small town about half an hour northeast of Cookeville, Bob Young pulled a student out of class at the local technical college for a job interview.

Young has come to depend on students from the Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Livingston to help out at his small business, which manufactures metal goods for the automotive industry. The students have interned there for a few years, and when there’s a job opening, they are the go-to candidates.

The impromptu meeting delighted government officials who were visiting the TCAT last week to celebrate its new mechatronics program, which Young helped develop. It’s one of several programs paid for by $10 million in state funding that is meant to fill a void of qualified workers that lawmakers, education leaders and industry officials say was frustrating Tennessee manufacturers while keeping other companies away from the Volunteer State.

That money went toward 12 Labor Education Alignment Program grants, which the state awarded last year to regional teams across Tennessee that included representatives from colleges, businesses and school systems. Many of the grants paid for mechatronics equipment that replicates the robotic fixtures of a modern assembly line.

Lillian Hartgrove with the Highlands Economic Partnership said local businesses had been complaining for about three years that potential employees lacked hands-on mechatronics experience.

“We kept hearing it, and we knew it was escalating for us,” she said. “But we didn’t have the money. We didn’t have the funding to be able to go forth and implement.”

State Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who sponsored the LEAP legislation in 2013, said he was motivated by similar complaints in West Tennessee. A Unilever plant in Covington initially had trouble filling positions with qualified workers. The company partnered with Dyersburg State Community College to create a curriculum that would pump more qualified workers into their pool.

That local model, Norris said, inspired the statewide approach. During an event celebrating Livingston’s LEAP grant, Russ Deaton, interim executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said employers throughout the state would soon reap the benefits.

“We recognize that there is a disconnect in our past, sometimes, between industry workforce needs and education,” Deaton said. “This is part of that solution. This is part of us solving that problem.”

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