Technically Speaking, What Might Minnesota Learn from Tennessee?

This is a blog about impressive things going on with technical education in Tennessee.  It’s the kind of blog which Minnesota leaders in education, business, and government are likely to respond, “Hey bub, wait a minute, we’re doing great things here, too.  Some even better.”  Which I trust is the case and hope they let me know about them, especially since I still have much to learn about what various sectors in Minnesota are doing in this critically important area.

In working on American Experiment’s major project “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree,” one of the big lessons my colleagues and I have learned is that an enormous number of excellent programs and other initiatives aimed at increasing the number of men and women in highly skilled technical professions have been underway in Minnesota for a while.  Some ventures, I trust, have been up and running longer than comparable efforts in Tennessee.  Katherine Kersten, John Hinderaker, and I are constantly impressed by these exceptional and invaluable but routinely not widely known programs.  Yet whatever good things business, educational, and governmental leaders in Minnesota are doing to advance technical education, it’s useful to get a sense of what their counterparts are pursuing in Tennessee.

The following annotated excerpts, which have been edited very mildly for stylistic purposes, are from a panel discussion last spring, in Nashville, sponsored by the American Technical Education Association.  (I’m the annotator, by the way, in italics.)  You can read the entire discussion in the Spring/Summer issue of the AETA Journal.

Michael Krause is the Executive Director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission: “A couple of years ago, 2012, the governor, [Bill] Haslam asked: Could we change how students think about their own future?  Could we change how they think about what college means?  And that was the genesis of the Tennessee Promise.  The Tennessee Promise offers any student in Tennessee the opportunity when they graduate high school to attend one of our technical colleges for free.”

I’m generally not a fan of free tuition once students get beyond high school.  This is the case for budgetary reasons and because many people will succumb to the temptation of not working particularly hard since they have little financial skin in the game, as the cliché goes.  But what I do like about this passage are the questions posed by Governor Haslam about helping students improve how they think about their future, reinforced by his spurring them to think anew about what college means. 

Kevin Smith is Nissan’s North America Manager of Technical Training: “The TCATS [Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology] needed more space.  We (Nissan) had to do more programmable logic controller training.  We also needed more space.   We made an offer to the State of Tennessee: We can provide you with the land; do you think you could build the facility that we can share for our mutual benefit?  I know there’s a lot of partnerships out there between states and auto manufacturers.  There’s not too many of them that actually share the facility and are open to the public and train residents of that area, as well as the employees of that company.  And we’re pretty proud of that fact.”

Smith continues: “One of the things we wanted to be able to do with the building [located in Rutherford County, in the middle of the state] was to be able to bring in middle schoolers, high schoolers, their parents, their teachers, their counselors.  We wanted them to see these are good careers.  It’s amazing to see the parents’ eyes open-up when you can tell them their son or daughter can go 18 months to [an] industrial electrical mechanical mechatronics program [I don’t know what this means either], that’s free . . . and come out and make $50,000-$60,000 a year.  And 100% placement right after that program.”

I applaud Nissan’s interest in having not just students, and not just parents visit the factory, but teachers and counselors as well.  I particularly like how this comment segues to another one by an unnamed conference participant a couple of pages later (see below).  But more than “applauding” and “liking” what they do in Rutherford County, I’m amazed by how that Nissan plant produced 648,000 vehicles in 2016.  Try imagining how many new vehicles that means every 24 hours, every day of a year.  (For those who imaginations have stalled, it’s 1,775.)  Remarkable.    

The unnamed participant said this: “[W]e need to train school counselors.  They all have Bachelor’s degrees and Master’s degrees.  That is a 20-year-old message, versus this more current message.  I would love to see some way where we’ve got school counselors with more tangible TCAT experiences so that they know that’s a tool in their tool kit.”

My American Experiment colleagues and I would love to see that, too.  We’re working on it.