Game Changer

tn_promise_logoIn our 2014 State Rankings Report, Tennessee was the top-ranked state in our Education: Race to the Top Leaders category. This ranking was based primarily on the U.S. Department of Education’s assessment that TN has had the most success of any state in implementing the federal program to reform and upgrade the educational system.

But the Volunteer State [recently named BF’s first back-to-back State of the Year] didn’t stop there. While the ink was still drying on our Rankings Report issue, Gov. Bill Haslam pushed a bill through the state legislature making Tennessee the first state in the nation to provide two free years of community college or technical school to all of its students.

This groundbreaking program–Tennessee Promise–which on a state level directly addresses the critical shortage of skilled workers in America, did not escape the attention of the folks in the Obama Administration who created the Race to the Top program. Last week, President Obama picked up on Tennessee’s bold action and proposed to adopt it nationwide. You can expect to hear a lot about this in the president’s State of the Union address next week [Memo to 44: give a little credit to Gov. Haslam and TN when you get to that part of the speech].

Having the POTUS hold up your state’s initiative as a model for the nation would make most governors pause and take a bow, but Gov. Haslam and our friends in Tennessee are too busy taking their first-in-the-nation education program to the next level. Their goal is breathtaking in its scope, forward-thinking to the max and, if–let’s say when–it succeeds, likely will be remembered as the pivotal moment when the U.S.A. got its act together and re-created the most competitive, well-trained workforce on the planet, updated for the advanced skills required in the 21st century.

We met with the top execs from the Greater Memphis Chamber during their annual sit-downs with media folks in New York this week. Phil Trenary and Mark Herbison, president and senior VP, respectively, gave us an inside look at the revolutionary workforce training initiative now up and running in Memphis, Shelby County and Fayette County that aims to build an ample supply of ready-to-go skilled workers by channeling students in grade school into technical/vocational programs.

We’re not going to get into the details here — stay tuned for our Workforce Training cover story in the March/April issue of BF — but here’s the Cliff Notes version:

What they’re doing in Greater Memphis is providing technical courses to high school students in the basics they’ll need to develop the skills for advanced manufacturing jobs. Here’s the beauty part: all of the area’s numerous Tech Schools and Community Colleges have agreed to grant full college credits to the kids who take these courses.

So 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.

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. And if you still think vo-tech is not where the moolah is, here’s an eye-popping factoid from Phil Trenary:

“The starting salary for someone with superior CNC skills is around $85,000,” he said.

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 as we speak–who are ready to march into any advanced manufacturing facility that opens its doors in the region.

But this initiative aims to do even more than that (and here’s where you need to grab a Kleenex, readers):

“We also believe this is the most effective way to break the cycle of poverty,” Herbison told us. “All of our kids have the potential, but many never get the opportunity or finish their education before they develop these skills. This will change that.”

A game changer indeed. Time for a standing O, America, and we’re not talking about Obama at the podium. Make it loud enough so they can hear it on Beale St.