Gibson County ‘ripe’ for technical education center

By Crystal Burns

 A coalition of industry, education and government leaders are working with state officials to create a technical education center in Gibson County.

Vanessa Presson, Complex HR Manager at Tyson Foods in Humboldt, and Technical Education Liaison Rodney Ellis from Tyson’s corporate office in Springdale, Ark., updated the Trenton Special School District board on a local industry coalition that has been formed to find a solution to a shared dilemma – how to fill skilled labor positions in their companies.

National projections show a shortage of 31 million skilled workers by 2020. Areas include construction and extraction occupations, electricians, civil engineers, electrical engineers, machinists, welding, soldering and brazing workers, heating and cooling, industrial machinery mechanics, industrial engineers, mechanical engineers, and pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters.

“We’ve got a crisis going on right now,” Presson said. “Baby boomers are retiring and people are not going into skilled labor positions in the quantities we need.”

In Gibson County, industry leaders are collaborating to find a way to create pathways for local students to find good paying jobs that keep them here at home.

“You’re really ripe right now for making this work and giving your young people a lot of opportunities,” Ellis said.

Dr. Jared Bigham, senior advisor for Workforce and Rural Initiatives with the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry, is working with the coalition that includes Dura, MacLean, Dana, Jones, Milan Public Utilities, Ceco, Bongards’ Creameries, Tyson, Reinhausen Manufacturing, and other local industries.

“We have met with industry leaders and created an industry board to give insight into the current and future workforce needs,” Bigham said. “We took those needs and met with K-12 and postsecondary leaders to map out a proposed strategy on how the Gibson County Career Technical Academy can meet those needs through a multi-pronged approach of supporting dual enrollment, TN Promise and TN Reconnect students.”

TN Promise provides last-dollar scholarships that allow qualified high school graduates to attend Tennessee community college or any Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) for two years tuition-free. TN Reconnect is the state’s initiative to help adults enter higher education so they may gain new skills, advance in the workplace and fulfill lifelong dreams of completing a degree or credential.

Bigham said the amount of collaboration between industries, the county’s five school districts, city and county government leaders, TCAT Jackson, Dyersburg State and Jackson State community colleges, the University of Tennessee at Martin, the county’s three chambers of commerce directors, Gibson County Economic Developer Kingsley Brock and State Rep. Curtis Halford bodes well for the academy’s ultimate success.

“I’ve been very impressed with the commitment and spirit of collaboration in West Tennessee,” Bigham said. “The most successful workforce development strategies I’ve seen are driven by industry, and you can tell there is a true willingness on the part of regional companies like Tyson and others to go beyond the typical ‘benevolent’ partnership and in return see tangible talent pipelines to meet their workforce needs.”

“With industry and school districts working together, it has helped to document to the decision-makers in Nashville that Gibson County has a legitimate need in this area and also has the potential student population to make a facility viable,” said Tim Haney, TSSD director of schools. “This would be a culture-changing addition for many students in the county, an opportunity to earn certifications and credentials that lead to higher skilled, higher paying jobs.”

The academy will offer a well-rounded industrial maintenance curriculum for high school juniors and seniors. Students walk away from the program with apprenticeships and internships, certifications, skills, wages and plenty of options, Ellis said.

“It’s like drinking from a fire hose for two years,” Ellis said. “It’s just amazing what they get because they get acclimation to a lot of broad-based skills.”

Bigham said what is being proposed in Gibson County is unique because high school, TCAT, community college and four-year programs will be housed under one roof.

Adult learners will also reap the benefits, using the academy to finish or earn new credentials, and industries may send their employees to the academy for additional training that could allow them to advance within their companies.

Inventory

Coalition members are asking the community to support the academy with donations of money, equipment or sweat equity. Leaders are putting together a list of commitments to include in the final package for state review and need companies to respond by June 25.

Please send commitments or questions to Jared Bigham jared.bigham@tnchamber.org with the subject line: Gibson County CTA.

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