To boost its economy, Tennessee is creating more college grads

Job opportunities in many parts of Tennessee are plentiful, but too many residents don't have the skills to fill them. Now leaders are trying to smooth the path to higher education and to a better-trained work force.

Lonnie Shekhtman/The Christian Science Monitor
Amy Haddock, a Volkswagen Academy student, stands next to electronic test equipment in a classroom at the carmaker's Chattanooga facility, February 9, 2017.

Amy Haddock, a 41-year-old stay-at-home mom, may not seem like a mechanically minded tinkerer, but she wants a career.

And here she is, living just 18 miles east of Volkswagen’s only US manufacturing plant in Chattanooga, where jobs are plentiful.

So, after completing her associate’s degree in engineering in 2018 at Volkswagen Academy, Ms. Haddock is going to help build cars.

Haddock is in the academy’s mechatronics program – a combination of mechanical engineering and electronics. It was developed by the German automaker in partnership with Chattanooga State Community College, where the academy’s current class of 72 students is enrolled. The goal of the academy is to cultivate technical workers for some of the 2,800 jobs at Volkswagen’s sprawling, nearly 6-year-old manufacturing plant.

As she was contemplating a career, Haddock, who had not gone to college, says she calculated that the academy offered the best opportunity (a $47,000 job) at the lowest cost (an $8,000 degree).

“I started looking at my life and thinking, ‘What’s going to happen in a few years when [my kids] don’t need me as much?’” Haddock recalls while in her classroom at Volkswagen, pulling off her goggles to break from working on electronic test equipment. “I have no skill set. I have no training for anything,” she adds.

But from the perspective of her home state, which like most others is constantly trying to attract business investment and grow its economy, Haddock is now a model Tennessean. She’s motivated, becoming skilled, and ready to work in a growing industry.

The problem for the state is that there aren’t nearly enough Haddocks. Only about 38 percent of adults here have postsecondary degrees – from certificates to four-year degrees and beyond – among the lowest rates in the country. And too few students enrolled in public colleges in Tennessee graduate. At some colleges here, graduation rates are in the single digits.

For a state competing to lure global companies at a time when technical know-how is in high demand, the dearth of skilled workers is a red flag.

“I travel all over the world now selling Tennessee,” says Gov. Bill Haslam. “Today half of the conversation is about workforce, and about the skill set, and what the state can do to train our workforce.”

Governor Haslam, a Republican, is building a portfolio of selling points for the state, which in 2013 committed to growing the rate of college degrees and technical certificates among adult residents to 55 percent by 2025. According to a 2013 Georgetown University study, more than 65 percent of all US jobs will require education beyond high school by 2020.

Reaching out to high school

But before degrees can be conferred, more high school graduates need to enroll in college. To lower the cost barriers, the governor in 2015 launched Tennessee Promise, which offers high school seniors free tuition, after other aid is exhausted, to two-year community or technical school programs, provided they attend full time. The program is funded by lottery proceeds, and Haslam even proposed in January to expand Promise to adults.

Tennessee Promise is based on a program pioneered in Kalamazoo, Mich. in 2005. Now states including Oregon and Minnesota have similar offerings; with New York and Rhode Island considering free or reduced tuition programs as well.

Tennessee education reformers credit Promise, and the attention it drew to the state’s college-going rates, with a bump in college enrollment in the program’s first year. In 2015, 62.5 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college, a 4.6 percentage-point jump from the previous year, and the biggest jump since at least 2009.

The Promise brought in students like Chattanooga State freshman Nikki Glass. On a rainy day recently, she sits cross-legged in an armchair in the quiet lobby of the college’s administration building, doing her communications homework. Ms. Glass says she figured she would go to college after high school, but didn’t know where or for what. Free tuition nudged her toward community college.

“I haven’t really enjoyed school,” Glass says, “so I figured baby steps.”

Glass is working toward her associate’s degree in health sciences. The big question for Tennessee is: Will Glass – and many others like her – earn a degree?

Path to more graduates

There are indications that raising graduation rates is possible. A program launched in 2007 at three community colleges in the City University of New York system nearly doubled the number of graduates after three years.

Administrators there hired more advisers to work closely with struggling students. They also offered free tutoring, and paid for small yet vital extras like transit passes and textbooks.

Georgia State University in Atlanta also has raised its graduation rates by several percentage points, now graduating more than half of its students within six years through similar tactics. What is unique about Georgia State is that in 2012 student advisers there began using a data analytics program to identify struggling students early so they can intervene more quickly.

Other universities have adopted Georgia State’s software system, including Middle Tennessee State University, about 40 miles south of Nashville. It began using the statistics tool – which identifies when a student is struggling in a class, for instance, and notifies an adviser who can set the student up with tutoring – in 2014. In its first year, the data tool helped raise Middle Tennessee’s four-year graduation rate to 20 percent from 16 .

“A lot of this is common sense delivered at scale,” says Timothy M. Renick, Georgia State’s vice provost and vice president for enrollment management and student success.

Tennessee is taking stock of promising efforts like these at schools across the state, hoping to replicate them widely. A high school remediation program developed by Chattanooga State in 2012 for its community has already been deployed statewide, says Robert Denn, vice president of institutional effectiveness, research, and planning at Chattanooga State.

To knock down a major obstacle to college completion – math skills – Chattanooga State designed an online math course for high school seniors to get them ready for college-level classes before they hit campus. “It’s measurable, it’s uniform, and we can assess them along the way,” says Dr. Denn.

Lonnie Shekhtman/The Christian Science Monitor
On the left, Luis Balanza, and on the right, Jesus Enriquez work on their capstone project to demonstrate the skills they have acquired during their three-year Volkswagen Academy mechatronics program, February 9, 2017.

Chattanooga State also has developed another auto engineering program with Volkswagen, launched this school year, for high school juniors. “We’re trying to get to them earlier, because when they graduate, we might lose them,” says Nancy Patterson, Chattanooga State’s vice president of public relations.

Besides taking typical high school classes, like English and algebra, that are taught by Chattanooga State professors, the first cohort of 26 students also weld and build engines while earning college credits. By the time they graduate high school, these students will have 41 out of 63 credits needed for an associate’s degree.

Even if they decide not to work at Volkswagen, they’ll need the degree. Jobs in Tennessee are growing.

Need to import workers

So far in 2017, Tennessee has seen the highest small business job growth in the nation, according to a March 7 Paychex and IHS Small Business Jobs Index. And from March 2015 to March 2016, labor statistics show, employment rose in the six largest counties in the state.

The automotive industry is robust here, with Volkswagen, General Motors, and Nissan – plus their many suppliers – operating plants across the state. LG Electronics, based in South Korea, announced in early March that it will build a factory in Clarksville, its only washing-machine manufacturing facility in the US. The health-care industry is also growing at a rapid clip, as are retail and transportation.

But if education rates among residents remain low, employers increasingly will have to import workers, and the economic benefit of new jobs won’t reach the state’s poorest, Tennessee leaders worry.

“It’s not that we’re not filling the jobs,” notes Jared Bigham, the head of Chattanooga 2.0, an organization working to grow the degree and technical certificate rate in that city to 75 percent by 2025. “We’re just not filling them with our residents.”

This scenario plays out across the state, he says.

Tennessee has identified a litany of challenges that thwart students trying to earn degrees. For example, too many enroll with poor math and reading skills, which sets them behind academically. Some students burn out because they have to work full time, or take care of their kids, or commute long distances. Others are children of immigrants, or of parents who didn’t go to college, and they simply don’t know how to manage college, says Denn.

“I think a lot of students come here and don’t know how much work is involved. It’s not that they can’t do it, they just don’t know how,” he says.

The culture of low expectations is a persistent problem here, too, note Haslam and Bigham. Until relatively recently, Tennesseans didn’t need more than basic skills to get factory jobs. Those days are long gone, but too many people still can’t recognize the path to higher-paying jobs.

“It’s a mindset,” says Bigham. “You’re moving from a minimum wage mentality.”

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