Gov. Bill Lee on Friday morning, Dec. 6, celebrated his plan to add more vocational, technical and agriculture programs to Tennessee high schools with a visit to Alcoa, a partner in a nearly $900,000 state grant to train HVAC technicians.
Lee said the most exciting part of his first year in office was working with the General Assembly to pass the GIVE Act, the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education program. The event at Alcoa High School, with local legislators, was Lee’s first public presentation since last month’s grant announcements.
“I learned early on in my work career how valuable skilled tradespeople are, and how few of them there actually are,” Lee said.
“Our family business was HVAC and plumbing and electrical,” Lee explained. He began as a helper to heating, ventilation and air conditioning technicians in the business his grandfather started. The company grew to 1,500 employees, including plumbers, pipe fitters and electricians.
“We started a trade school at our company 10 years ago, and we ran 1,000 people through that program because we couldn’t find educational training like that in the public school system,” the governor said.
With a GIVE grant, the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Knoxville and Alcoa City Schools will train students to be HVAC technicians and mechanics, earning industry certifications and college credit while still in high school.
“I really believe that high school ought to look different,” Lee said, with strong ties to postsecondary schools and including vocational, technical and agricultural education. “That’s what we designed when we set up the GIVE Act,” he said, “to foster and encourage and strengthen that kind of education all across Tennessee.”
“This is a perfect example of how it’s supposed to work,” Lee said, adding that workforce development will change the future of the state and families’ lives.
“My goal is that a student graduates high school ready to go to work, right then,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “If they want to keep going though, let’s build a pathway for them. Let’s get them to a TCAT, let’s get them maybe to a community college and even to university later on, but we’ve got to make sure that career and technical education in Tennessee is a pathway to a great job on day one the day after high school graduation. This grant’s going to help do that.”
After the formal remarks, Lee toured the mechatronics lab at AHS, where students showed him the types of industry skills they learn.
“What you see in there are kids who are excited about what they are doing in school, excited about what the future holds for them because it connects their skills with meaningful education and meaningful employment down the road,” Lee said after the tour. “They’re excited about what they’re doing and what their future holds.”
Lee asked during the tour about the approximately $500,000 worth of equipment in the lab, discovering that Patty Thomas, director of career and technical education for Alcoa City Schools, has acquired it through grants and industry partnerships.
“What that tells me and what it reminds all of us is that it takes a partnership of the private sector, the nonprofit community, the state, the local municipalities and counties to come together to provide these pathways for children,” Lee said.
Through the GIVE grant Alcoa will renovate an old lab space in its middle school currently used for storage and install Trane HVAC training equipment that will be identical to equipment installed at TCAT’s Strawberry Plains and Liberty Street campuses, so students can seamlessly continue learning.
Alcoa also may create a night program for adult training in Blount County.
Thomas told the Alcoa school board during a work session last month that the program also is designed to reach some groups of students that have lower participation in CTE programs. For example, the grant will cover the cost of a wheelchair-accessible van to help special education students travel to work-based learning opportunities, and the district hopes to recruit more females into fields such as HVAC work.
“The coolest part about this, if you’re a competent HVAC technician you can get a job in any town or city in the United States,” Alcoa City Schools Director Brian Bell told school board members during that work session.
Friday afternoon Lee was scheduled to visit the Strawberry Plains campus of Pellissippi State Community College, which received two GIVE grants of nearly $1 million each to address workforce needs. The Blount County Career Collaborative will focus on construction and advanced manufacturing, while the Knox County Career Collaborative focuses on information technology careers.