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VOL. 128 | NO. 182 | Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Haslam Cites Manufacturing Boom in Grants

By Bill Dries

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Armed with a $16.5 million fund approved by the General Assembly, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has lots of West Tennessee stops this week as he awards grants that will provide workforce training equipment to state schools certifying workers or training them for associate degrees.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announces workforce training grants at a Memphis appearance Monday, Sept. 16. It was the first of several stops Haslam is making across West Tennessee this week to announce the grants, which will be used to provide workforce training equipment.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

And Haslam kicked off the set of announcements Monday, Sept. 16, with checks totaling $2.7 million in the hangar of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology Avionics School near Memphis International Airport.

The school was awarded two grants totaling $1.2 million for equipment that includes a Aeroism Boeing Virtual Procedures Trainer as well as upgrading its advanced manufacturing equipment and building a new lab.

Haslam specifically cited the growth in the city’s manufacturing sector in making the grants.

“What we do is technical,” said Roland Rayner, director of the college that offers certification in 25 different programs. “So you have to put your hands on things in order to train. So when we get additional equipment we can add additional students to our program.”

Haslam also awarded $1.5 million to Southwest Tennessee Community College to expand its capacity in its mechatronics programs in Memphis and into its workforce training in Covington and western Fayette County.

Mechatronics is product design that crosses several fields of engineering using mechanical and electrical systems as well as computer science. It can be applied to automation and robotics used in manufacturing.

Southwest Tennessee has been a pioneer in workforce training in the Memphis area for the recent resurgence in manufacturing jobs. The college worked with Electrolux and Blues City Brewing in particular to jump-start a job application process that stalled when it couldn’t locate the right workers.

Southwest Tennessee worked to include executives of both companies in training for the existing jobs that is now being replicated with other manufacturing businesses in the city.

“You have to put your hands on things in order to train. So when we get additional equipment we can add additional students to our program.”

–Roland Rayner

“We have a number of companies who have already determined they want their employees to earn associate degrees,” said Southwest Tennessee Community College President Nate Essex, who added that the college is currently working with a dozen companies on specific training for their needs.

“This is going to give us increased capacity to serve more companies,” he said of the grant. “One of the things we’ve tried to do is move very slowly because we did not want to commit ourselves to serve companies that we didn’t have the equipment to serve.”

Rayner boasts a 70 percent completion rate for the training across the more than two dozen fields offered at the state center in Memphis, which opened in 1963. And the Memphis center has an 80 percent job placement rate overall with a 100 percent rate in avionics.

“We’ve had three name changes – Memphis Area Vocational Technical School. I’ve been around when it changed to Tennessee Technology Centers. Now it’s Tennessee College of Applied Technology,” Rayner said. “This is what we do.”

The attention on training equipment comes a year after Rayner and Essex told Haslam in roundtable discussions in Memphis that it was what their centers needed. Haslam’s case for the funding was that it isn’t speculative.

“This is jobs that we know are out there. We can train more folks,” Haslam said after Monday’s announcement. “What we’re trying to do is listen to what the employers are telling us they need.”

Meanwhile, Haslam continues to hear that tuition increases at state higher education institutions are hurting his goal of upping the percentage of students who complete their college education to get a degree of some kind to 55 percent by 2025. The percentage is now in the low 30s.

“We’re looking at a variety of proposals … around what do we do to make college more affordable for people,” he said when asked about a proposal by state Sen. Jim Kyle of Memphis to use some money from the state lottery’s $400 million reserve fund to help students facing a “tuition gap.”

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