Report finds ‘growing’ demand for college program

On January 5, 2017, in News 2017, by Mark Norris

The Tennessean
January 5, 2017

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission is asking the state to pump more money into a $20 million grant program that partners employers with colleges to develop academic programs tailored to the needs of local job markets.

Twenty-four different projects received funding through the Labor Education Alignment Program in 2014 and 2016, enough to to start specialized training programs in 67 of the state’s 95 counties. In many cases that funding paid for high-tech mechatronics equipment that brought the robotic fixtures of a modern assembly line into Tennessee classrooms.

So far, 3,403 high school students and 2,065 college students have enrolled in courses and training programs supported by the funding, according to the report. More than 900 of those students had graduated by 2016. The commission said 608 of them got jobs as mechatronics engineers, electricity technicians and welders, among other positions.

The report recommended expanding the program, known as LEAP, so that students in every county of the state could have access to the courses.

“Requests for LEAP support far exceed the availability of funds for the program,” the report read. “The demand for innovation in workforce alignment is not only substantial across the state, but this demand is growing.”

State Sen. Mark Norris, the Senate’s majority leader, said he sponsored the LEAP legislation in 2013 because employers in West Tennessee and across the state had struggled to find qualified workers to fill jobs in high-tech factories because “technology had bypassed our ability.”

But Norris, R-Collierville, said he was thrilled to see feedback from the same employers being used to craft career-focused curricula at technical colleges and community colleges as well as dual-enrollment courses in high schools. He expressed confidence that the General Assembly would support additional LEAP funding during the upcoming legislative session.

“We have to look at the cost associated with it, but the benefit part outweighs every cost,” Norris said. “When you go and look in the eyes of these young people and see what a difference a relevant education makes, it’s just real clear.”

Scott Sloan, the chief of staff and general counsel at the higher education commission, said a key to the program’s early success has been the localized model. Each project brings together businesses, higher education leaders and local school systems to address needs specific to a small cluster of counties.

For instance, a LEAP project in East Tennessee led by the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Morristown brought a “work ethic diploma” program into five local high schools so that students could learn soft skills surrounding professional behavior. Every student who completes the program gets an interview with a nearby employer.

A separate LEAP project in Middle Tennessee led by Nashville State Community College brought a mechatronics training program to Fort Campbell where veterans transitioning to civilian life earned certifications to work with mechatronics equipment.

For each project, businesses “identify collectively what they need, and the (schools) and higher education do their part,” Sloan said. “Having all of the key players at the table simultaneously devising a plan that they collectively feel is addressing their needs is what sets this apart.

“We think that this recipe will work in all 95 counties.”

Sloan acknowledged the challenge ahead would be to keep the existing projects in step with evolving workforce needs. The commission will continue to evaluate LEAP projects through periodic site visits and annual reports.

“It’s not a one-stage fix. If we want to be competitive with other states for industry this is something we must maintain a focus on,” Sloan said. “What we hope to have as a result is the conversations and the collaboration at the local level (that) is sustained.”

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