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Attack Tennessee’s job problem with cooperation

Johnson City Press • Aug 3, 2018 at 8:15 AM

As we’ve heard from several candidates on this year’s campaign trail, a key ingredient in Tennessee’s economic development is a better prepared workforce.

If our state expects to attract more industry and other businesses offering better employment opportunities, it must provide a pool of workers with the necessary education and skills. No employer wants to locate where it has to bring in outside labor or train its staff from the ground up.

“We can’t improve the opportunity and desirability of this region without quality jobs. And we can’t attract quality jobs without a quality workforce,” exiting Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge told Staff Writer Zach Vance earlier this year.

We were pleased to hear the candidates pushing for a renewed emphasis on career-technical education, including suggestions for public-private partnerships. Sharing the burden with the private sector, where the means and expertise exist, makes perfect sense.

But that does not excuse the state and local governments from stepping up to the plate politically, financially and creatively.

As industrial technology has changed, more and more jobs have required at least some post-secondary training. Tennessee’s high schools have done their best to keep up by adapting traditional shop, auto and other trade programs to prepare students, but keeping pace with rapidly evolving technology is an expensive endeavor.

At the post-secondary level, the First Tennessee Development District is working to see all eight counties in Northeast Tennessee certified as ACT Work Ready Communities, a credential job seekers can use to prove their skills and companies can leverage to know they’re hiring qualified employees, while Northeast State Community College and the regional Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology continue to provide opportunities for education and certification.

But more has to be done to make complete career-technical education more accessible to more high school students before they graduate, and both state and local governments will have to be creative in that effort. Eldridge already has mentioned the need to mirror Chattanooga’s efforts in aligning career-technical curricula to allow high school students to earn dual credits with acceptance at a TCAT, a community college or university.

Another idea we’ve heard floating around Washington County is to follow Greene County’s lead with a jointly operated career-technical program between the county’s two public school systems.

The Greene Technology Center in Greeneville serves high school students from both the Greeneville City and Greene County School Systems, as well as adult learners. As a satellite campus of the TCAT in Morristown, the center offers more than a dozen different career and technical education programs, including automotive repair, cosmetology, criminal justice, health science, early childhood education and welding.

Here in Washington County/Johnson City, Northeast State already has a strong presence, and a TCAT sits just a few miles away in Elizabethton.

While salary structures and other administrative concerns about a program serving two school systems and adult learners would have to be resolved, Johnson City, Washington County and state officials would do well to continue exploring various options for a common career-technical program and to cultivate more of those public-private partnerships along the way.

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