Feature Story: Tennessee Governor’s Report – Staying Ahead Of The Curve

By Jack Rogers
From the January/February 2015 issue

When Tennessee received one of the largest allocations from the federal Race to the Top educational reform program—the state got $500 million from the U.S. Department of Education’s national effort to upgrade teaching standards and student performance—Gov. Bill Haslam saw much more than an opportunity to lift reading and math scores in grade schools across the Volunteer State. He saw the cornerstone of a foundation for Tennessee’s future.

Gov. Bill Haslam
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

That foundation is now in place: Tennessee has been cited by the federal Department of Education as the state which has most successfully implemented the requirements that came with its Race to the Top funding (as a result, TN was the top-ranked state in BF’s Education: Race to the Top Leaders rankings category in 2014).

But Gov. Haslam has no intention of stopping there. The governor has doubled down on education reform with the boldest initiative in the nation to expand access to college to all eligible students in Tennessee; he’s also spearheading a multi-tiered workforce training effort that may revolutionize the way states prepare skilled workers for the advanced manufacturing needs of the 21st century.

Tennessee’s impressive forward-thinking approach to education and workforce training was a big reason it recently became the first state to win back-to-back State of the Year honors from Business Facilities. In an exclusive interview with BF, Gov. Haslam provided insight into what’s driving Tennessee’s impressive effort to stay ahead of the curve and chart a sure route to a bright future of sustainable growth.


To meet the Race to the Top challenge, Tennessee had to confront some deeply rooted practices that historically had held down educational achievements not just in TN but throughout the South, the governor told us.

“Real change is difficult,” Haslam said. “The southern states had not historically had standards as high as the rest of the country, or the rest of the world for that matter.”

TN’s Race to the Top effort redefined the state’s standards for what schools should expect from students in terms of proficiency, but it also zeroed in on teacher performance.

“We put a new evaluation process in place for our teachers,” Haslam told us. “We went from teachers maybe—or maybe not—being evaluated every five years or so to a rigorous process for regular evaluations with specific standards that have to be met.”

The result, Haslam explained, is nothing less than a redefinition of the mission of teaching in TN. “I think we’ve turned our teachers and administrators into instructional leaders,” he said.

Getting buy-in from all of the educational stakeholders was critically important to the success of TN’s educational reforms. “Like anything else where change is involved, it’s not easy,” the governor told us. “There are going to be people who think you’re going too fast and others who think you’re going too slow.”

Relating these reforms to the real-world challenges that will face students when they emerge from TN’s school system also was imperative.

“Our focus has been on preparing kids for the much more competitive world they will face,” Haslam said. “It’s not the world their parents or grandparents grew up in.”


Making the connection between Tennessee’s ongoing effort to upgrade education and the challenges of a highly competitive market for skilled high-tech workers has been the hallmark of Gov. Haslam’s most recent initiatives, including some first-in-the-nation programs that are being hailed as models that should be replicated across the U.S.

The boldest of several groundbreaking advances has been Gov. Haslam’s successful push to enact his pledge to provide two free years of Technical School of Community College.

Tennessee Promise is both a scholarship and mentoring program that will begin in the fall of 2015. It will provide students a last-dollar scholarship, meaning the scholarship will cover tuition and fees not covered by Pell grants, HOPE scholarships or TSAA funds. Students may use the scholarship at any of the state’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology or other eligible institution offering an associate’s degree program.

While removing the financial burden is key, a critical component of Tennessee Promise is the individual guidance each participant will receive from a mentor who will assist the student as he or she navigates the college admissions process. In addition, Tennessee Promise participants must complete eight hours of community service per term enrolled, as well as maintain satisfactory academic progress (2.0 GPA) at their institution. The Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation (TSAC) will administer the scholarship component of Tennessee Promise, while local, non-profit partnering organizations will coordinate the mentoring and community service pieces. County mayors selected partnering organizations for their counties in the summer of 2014. Once a student applies to the Tennessee Promise program, his or her respective partnering organization will be responsible for reaching out regarding program requirements and mentorship connections.

Gov. Haslam’s success in pushing through Tennessee Promise did not escape the attention of the folks in the Obama Administration who created the Race to the Top program. Just a few weeks after the governor signed the legislation enacting Tennessee Promise, President Obama said the program providing two free years of college should be adopted throughout the United States. Obama made the proposal a centerpiece of his 2015 State of the Union address, heaping praise on the Volunteer State for pioneering a bold solution to the nation’s critical shortage of skilled workers.


The mentoring concept that is a key to the Tennessee Promise program is being dramatically applied to a new workforce training initiative in Tennessee that has the potential to revolutionize the way states develop a skilled workforce to meet the needs of advanced manufacturing.

The groundbreaking workforce training initiative now up and running in Memphis, Shelby County and Fayette County aims to build an ample supply of ready-to-go skilled workers by channeling students in grade school into technical/vocational programs.

The Greater Memphis region is providing technical courses to high school students in the basics they’ll need to develop the skills for advanced manufacturing jobs. The area’s numerous Tech Schools and Community Colleges have agreed to grant full college credits to the kids who take these courses.

As a result of this initiative, high school graduates in Greater Memphis will emerge with a huge head start in what it takes to operate a CNC (computer numerically controlled) machine tool or 3D printer in the 21st century workforce. Add in the state’s two free years of college (for a total of 14 years of free education) and Tennessee’s youth will be ready to meet the needs of any advanced manufacturing job that’s waiting to be filled the minute they get their college diploma.

Gov. Bill Haslam recently presided over the 61st Annual Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development in Nashville. The two-day conference featured educational sessions on a wide range of topics. 
Gov. Bill Haslam recently presided over the 61st Annual Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development in Nashville. The two-day conference featured educational sessions on a wide range of topics. (Photo: TN.gov.)

The program includes a full-court press to counsel students in the K-12 years about potential vo-tech careers and the value of enhancing their STEM skills. The starting salary for someone with superior CNC skills can be as high as $85,000, TN officials told BF.

The program is working with business leaders to essentially take “advance orders” for skilled workers. The plan is to create an army of home grown skilled workers–there are 120,000 high school seniors in Shelby County alone.

Tennessee is also ahead of the curve in partnering with key players in growth sectors to develop on-site training facilities. In 2014, Gov. Haslam announced a new on-site training facility to create a pipeline of skilled workers for Nissan’s Smyrna, TN assembly plant. A public-private partnership between Nissan and the state will provide training programs aimed at preparing workers for jobs in advanced manufacturing such as engineering, robotics and manufacturing maintenance.

The training center, which is scheduled to be completed by late 2016, will operate as an extension of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) campus at Murfreesboro. Nissan and Murfreesboro TCAT will occupy the facility jointly.

“The Human Resources training program for Volkswagen’s assembly plant is actually run by one of our higher-education institutions in Chattanooga,” Gov. Haslam also noted.

Gov. Haslam told us that tailoring education to meet the workforce needs of manufacturers is critical to Tennessee’s highly successful economic development effort.

“When we recruit businesses, it’s our job to make certain the money we’re putting into higher education meets the priorities of these businesses,” Haslam said. “If the marketplace says it needs more engineers, or more welders or more services, we have to make sure we’re funding these opportunities commensurately. It’s really about customizing our educational resources to meet the needs of the businesses that are out there.”

The core message that Gov. Haslam wants to deliver to businesses considering relocating to Tennessee is that the Volunteer State will be ready meet their need for a skilled workforce–now and in the future.

“I think the perception we want to make certain we communicate is that we have a workforce that has the technical capacity for the business world that exists now, and we’ll have one for the one that is going to exist five and 10 years from now,” he told BF.


Expanding trade and foreign direct investment in Tennessee has been a key priority for Gov. Haslam, and this effort is yielding significant results: Exports have increased by nearly 25 percent since he took office.

The winner’s of TN’s annual Governor’s Award for Trade Excellence (GATE) were presented in November 2014 at the 61st Annual Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development, held in Nashville. The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development announced that Swiftwick, Jackson Kayak and Gibson are recipients of the GATE Award, which honors small, medium and large companies who have achieved excellence in engaging in global trade.

“One of TNECD’s key strategies has been to grow Tennessee exports and assist Tennessee businesses in their exporting efforts,” former TNECD Commissioner Bill Hagerty said, as he announced the awards. “In 2013, our state’s exports topped more than $32.3 billion, an increase of 24.5 percent since Gov. Haslam took office. Tennessee’s economy is more connected to the global economy than ever before, and I congratulate our GATE Award winners on their business acumen and their aggressive approach to global markets that has allowed them to tap new markets and maintain international competitiveness.”

Swiftwick, the small company winner, is a performance sock manufacturer that proudly employs an American workforce in high-quality textile manufacturing. Founded in 2008, Swiftwick is headquartered in Brentwood, TN. The company inked an international distribution deal with Rock Gear in Canada and more recently secured a distribution deal with Ortho Europe based in England. Swiftwick has multiple other commercial deals in advanced stages of the pipeline and expect more international growth in 2015.

Jackson Kayak in Sparta, TN, the medium company winner, manufactures kayaks, coolers and accessories for its own brand name, in addition to creating custom moldings for other companies. Eric Jackson founded Jackson Kayak in 2004, and he created sales on five continents within just two years of business. Since then, Jackson Kayak has made many more distributor partnerships in countries around Europe, Asia and South America. The company most recently began exporting to Russia and China.

Gibson, the large company winner, is known worldwide for producing classic models in every major style of fretted instrument including acoustic and electric guitars, mandolins and banjos. Gibson’s digital guitar, introduced in 2002, represents the biggest advantage in electric guitar design in more than 70 years. Gibson was founded in 1894 in Kalamazoo, MI, and has been headquartered in Nashville since 1984,

Tennessee companies exported $32.3 billion worth of goods and services in 2013, and Tennessee’s export growth of $6.3 billion from 2010-2013 ranks No. 10 in the nation. Top export commodities include transportation equipment, chemicals, computer and electronic products, miscellaneous manufactured commodities, and machinery. Top export markets include Canada, Mexico, China, Japan and Belgium.