Norris Files Job Training Legislation

By Andy Meek

Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, has filed legislation that would create a new statewide initiative aimed at shoring up workers’ job skills and addressing labor shortages among Tennessee employers.

Norris’ bill creates what would be called the Labor Education Alignment Program, or LEAP. The idea is to merge traditional college coursework with technical training, allowing students at the state’s technology centers and community colleges an opportunity to pair occupational training in a high-skill or high-tech industry with academic credit.

Students could then apply that experience toward a degree.

“I’ve met with a number of industries in high-tech manufacturing ready to expand in Tennessee but for a lack of qualified employees, and I know of many Tennesseans who can’t afford to attend school while sacrificing a paying job,” Norris said.

The legislation is drafted so that student wages or other compensation won’t affect eligibility for state need-based financial assistance or grants.

Norris and his staff consulted with major employers in Tennessee and other area states, as well as overseas, to study so-called “cooperative education” programs. Students are paid to learn while also applying what they learn at work for credit toward a degree.

Norris said it’s comparable to apprentice programs of generations past. The difference is this adds a modern higher education component to address what the state’s employers want: job candidates with skills needed in today’s technologically advanced workforce.

The bill reads, in part:

“The purposes of this (legislation) are to establish a statewide, comprehensive labor education alignment program, also referred to as the ‘program’ or ‘LEAP,’ to enable students in technology centers and community colleges to participate in employment training and to attain industry-recognized post-secondary credentials for sustaining gainful and quality employment in this state. (It’s also intended) to enable students to more adequately meet the advanced technical training needs required by current and future employers of existing and prospective industries and businesses in this state.”

The legislation directs several state entities to work together to establish and carry out the initiative. And the bill already is headed toward committees in both chambers of the General Assembly.

Its focus on addressing challenges related to employment is a major focus among state leaders at the moment. Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty recently met with The Daily News and discussed that focus, among other things.

“The unemployment rate is still unacceptably high and we still see a lot of opportunity to perform better,” Hagerty said. “We also look with concern at some of the recent surveys. Ohio State just put out a survey in December. It was a survey of middle-sized businesses. What the businesses said was that while they are still growing, they are growing at a slower pace in the last quarter of 2012. And they expect to grow at an even slower pace in 2013.”

Beyond that, he noted there’s still $2 trillion sitting on U.S. corporate balance sheets. And many companies in Tennessee and abroad, he said, are focused right now on their internal cost structure because they’re trying to figure out how to implement things like the new health care reform legislation’s provisions.

“Some are making adjustments to their part-time, full-time employee mix as a result of that,” he said. “I would far rather see them focused on expanding their markets and hiring more people than focused on internal cost structure, trying to optimize for a regulatory regime that is still not fully defined.”

Tennessee’s most recent unemployment rate stood at 7.6 percent.