Among the clear promises Bill Lee made in his successful bid for Tennessee governor two years ago was his commitment to workforce development at both the high school and post-secondary levels.
Simply put, Tennessee and the upstate in particular do not have enough people with the skills and training necessary to meet the demands of modern industry. That inadequate workforce is among the barriers between Northeast Tennessee and companies that provide higher-paying jobs. A business that cannot fill its needs here is unlikely to locate here. It’s also why existing businesses struggle to find and keep adequate labor.
This state has some but not enough infrastructure in place for technology-oriented career readiness. That includes the 27 campuses of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology, one of which sits in Elizabethton.
Last year, we called on Lee and the state Legislature to fulfill the governor’s pledge by approving the local proposal to create a satellite campus of TCAT-Elizabethton at the former Boones Creek School in north Johnson City. Such a facility would both increase TCAT’s capacity and improve access for students in Washington and Sullivan counties. Because TCAT offers dual enrollment for high school students to learn skills and earn credits, more direct access would be a boon to education in the region.
The Boones Creek building would be renovated to house such study areas as construction trades, heavy equipment operation, culinary arts, hospitality and tourism, early childhood care, nursing and cosmetology.
As Elizabethton Bureau Chief John Thompson reported in Saturday’s edition, the TCAT Advisory Committee is set Monday to consider both the Boones Creek extension campus and a new 30,000-square-foot facility for the main campus in Elizabethton.
The $12 million plan would then go before the Tennessee Board of Regents, which governs TCAT and the state’s community colleges, who in turn would request the funding from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
History tells us that funding for such capital projects for education takes several years to land in the state’s budget. East Tennessee State University’s recently completed Martin Center for the Fine Arts being a prime example. More than a year already has passed since local government and TCAT officials raised the idea for a Boones Creek satellite.
This proposal should be on a fast track. Both Governor Lee and the General Assembly should skip all the usual bureaucracy and advance it right into the state’s budget. Our local legislative caucus, particularly Sen. Rusty Crowe and newly elected Reps. Tim Hicks and Rebecca Keefauver Alexander, must make it a priority.
This is Lee’s opportunity to make good on at least part of his commitment to improving career and technical education and in turn advance Tennessee’s economic viability.