VOL. 133 | NO. 22 | Tuesday, January 30, 2018
Lee, Boyd Pushing For Technical Education
By Bill Dries
Bill Lee led with his master plumber’s license last week as he toured Moore Tech. “I’m running for governor, too, by the way,” the Republican primary contender from Williamson County said as he talked with those attending classes and their instructors.
The return of what is known today as “career technical education” is a prominent part of Lee’s campaign as well as that of former Tennessee economic and community development commissioner Randy Boyd, two of the six Republican primary candidates on the August ballot.
Lee, who owns the Lee Company, a mechanical contracting firm, doesn’t like the term CTE. He calls it “vocational, technical and agricultural education.”
Republican contender for Tennessee governor Bill Lee, right, toured Moore Tech last week with the vocational school’s president, Skip Redmond. Lee and rival Republican Randy Boyd say career technical education hasn’t gotten the push it deserves in recent decades. (Daily News/Bill Dries)
“It’s something that I’ve lived my whole life. I grew up around this business,” he said after the walk-around with Skip Redmond, president of the private, nonprofit vocational school Moore Tech. “I took my first job as a mechanic’s helper on a truck and got a master plumber’s license. Now I run a company of 1,200 mostly skilled trade people.”
Lee Company faces the same problems filling Tennessee jobs that other companies encounter, as there are more jobs than qualified job applicants to work in specialized trades that require specific technical knowledge and certification, as well as associate degrees.
The Lee Company has its own classes with about 200 people taking them. Lee says he would prefer that his company and others didn’t have to do the training.
He has been vocal about what he feels is the perception that post-high school technical education is seen as not as important as a traditional four-year college education.
“And that’s because really, our education system has neglected for decades now vocational, technical and agricultural education,” he said. “I am a guy who genuinely believes that we should take a hard look not only at post-secondary but at how we look at high schools in particular.”
That includes, by Lee’s description, “the career path that we create for so many of our kids who aren’t going to traditional four-year college but for whom we can provide an opportunity to create jobs.”
“That’s really what this is about is creating jobs for half the children in our education system,” he said.
That same day on the campus of Christian Brothers University, a four-year private school, Boyd expressed a similar sentiment.
“I think as a country several decades ago we got away from promoting the trades and technical education,” he said. “As a result, culturally many people don’t value them like they used to. At the same time, our companies are desperate for those skills. We’ve got a significant skills gap across the state.”
Boyd credits the state’s Tennessee Promise scholarship program offering two years free at any state community college or Tennessee College of Applied Technology – or TCAT – as helping provide a “pathway.” Boyd was the architect of that and the state’s “Drive to 55” program, which has a goal of 55 percent of Tennesseans completing their post-secondary education – be it a four-year university or a two-year community college or trade school.
The completion rate today is 39 percent and Boyd says it is a central reason he’s running.
“I would worry that if I didn’t run for governor and if I didn’t win, the next person wouldn’t be as invested and as passionate and committed to completing the mission as I am,” he said.
Lee says he doesn’t think restoring an emphasis on Career Technical Education requires a government entity.
“One of my strong beliefs is that we should not so much build up a bigger government program around vocational, technical agricultural education,” he said, “but partner through facilities like Moore Tech, but also with industry to make industry not just be a recipient of our workforce development efforts but to be part of the solution.”
Redmond said Moore Tech continues its quest in the Tennessee Legislature to be included in the schools that can get state funding for Tennessee Promise students.
The Tennessee Promise program is funded through money from the Tennessee Lottery, the same funding source for Tennessee Hope scholarships, a scholarship for students attending four-year state colleges and universities.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis has been a critic of Tennessee Promise. As a state Senator, Cohen pushed for a state lottery and the use of its revenues for the Hope scholarships.
“People whose income is over $40,000 and people who didn’t make the grade in high school – more affluent, less achievers – they get most of the money,” Cohen said in 2015 after President Barack Obama talked of a federal equivalent of Tennessee Promise.
“The money should go to the middle-income kids who are making the grade,” he said at the time.
Boyd said Tennessee Promise has proven to be a bridge to four-year degrees with a “significant percentage” going from two years of community college to a four-year college or university.
“Because of that, many of the universities … have been very aggressive in partnering with the community colleges,” he said. “One of the unexpected benefits of Tennessee Promise is much closer collaboration today between the four-year schools and the two-year schools.”
Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson has talked in the last year of a strategy that could include a much larger realignment of SCS high schools to comprehensive high school models that include CTEs. Another option is separate CTE centers.
Boyd wants to partner community colleges in Shelby County with high schools, citing that only 20 percent of Memphis students earn technical certification or two-year associate degrees going through Southwest Tennessee Community College or the TCAT programs in Memphis. The remaining 80 percent get that certification through for-profit trade schools. The percentages are reversed statewide.
Boyd says a lack of advertising by Southwest compared to the for-profits as well as access to reliable public transportation are key barriers in Shelby County, so locating CTEs on or near high schools would help.
“As governor, one of my big plans is to work with the TCATs and community colleges and build satellite campuses on or near as many of the high schools around the county as we can,” he said.
“The beauty of building a satellite campus at a high school is free public transportation. We solve the transportation problem. And kids actually have time to get a certificate while they are getting their high school diploma.”