Free college tuition helps Tennessee prepare a workforce

Jimmy Chen (left), chief operating office of China-based Minth Group Ltd., shakes hands with Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam after announcing Minth's investment in a 20-employee body and trim parts plant in Lewisburg, Tenn.

Tennessee can already boast 900 auto suppliers and three auto assembly centers – Nissan in Smyrna and Dechard, Volkswagen in Chattanooga and General Motors in Spring Hill. But to attract more, Tennessee has made workforce development a key part of its message to auto companies.

Four years ago, the state established what it calls “Drive to 55” – a mission to have 55 percent of all Tennessee adults equipped with at least a community college degree or a certificate from a Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) by the year 2025.

To help reach that goal, the state this year passed the Tennessee Reconnect act, allowing every Tennessean to enter – or re-enter – community college or a TCAT school, with all tuition paid for by the state.

“That’s every Tennessean, no matter what their age is, as long as they graduated high school,” Rolfe says. “Automotive jobs today are first class and high-paying, but they require a high level of expertise. Tennessee is the first state to provide this tuition-free higher education and training opportunity to all citizens, and we believe any automaker thinking of locating in Tennessee will take notice.”

The end results will be the potential of better life for those who participate. But ultimately, the promise of a more skilled population will attract advanced industry, Rolfe says. Assembly plants rely increasingly on automation and technology, and auto companies are demanding the best trained workers.

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