Only 32 percent of working adults in Tennessee currently have certificates or postsecondary degrees. This is compounded when one considers that 70 percent of students require remedial math or English upon entering college — significantly increasing their risk of dropping out. Graduation rates after six years in our community colleges is a whopping 26 percent and in our universities it’s slightly better than 50 percent.
These statistics are alarming and unacceptable on many levels and everyone should be concerned: parents, educators, business leaders, government officials and students.
Current research shows that in order for Tennessee to meet the workplace demands of the future, 55 percent of jobs will require a credential or degree beyond the high school level.
Gov. Bill Haslam recently challenged our state with a critical new mission — the “Drive to 55.” This mission is paramount for workforce and economic development, as well as a drive to reduce unemployment and to improve quality of life for all Tennessee residents.
“We have to make college education accessible, affordable and tailored to the needs of our students ... to have the best trained workforce in America,” Haslam is quoted as saying.
Failure to effectively prepare and develop our workforce to obtain credentialed or post-secondary degrees will have severe consequences on our economy and personal bank accounts. Earning potential is directly tied to postsecondary training beyond high school level, with bachelor’s degree recipients ultimately earning up to 75 percent more than high school graduates.
Potential employers scouting for new locations will skip over Tennessee, refusing to move or relocate to areas lacking a qualified, skilled, workforce pool. I was recently in a meeting at the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce where a potential new manufacturer which would employ hundreds in our area, was “interviewing” our community leaders, utility and sewer experts, highway and traffic engineers, and other authorities trying to decide if they would build their plant in Bradley County. After everyone had their say, the leader of the manufacturing group turned to me and said, “Now we want to hear from Cleveland State. What are your training capabilities? Can you train our workforce?”
Current local employers who cannot staff their manufacturing plants with a dependable stream of qualified, skilled workers may look elsewhere. This creates a toxic cascade effect. Lack of employment often results in “brain drain” of affected areas as the more qualified, skilled, more educated workers leave, searching for better opportunities in other states or locales. This void further exacerbates the anemic workforce and frustrates employers. The standard of living drops.
Haslam has put forward a five-point strategy for achieving our goal of “55.” It includes:
1. Students must be ready for college. Reduce the need for remedial courses, and boost participation in dual enrollment and dual credit opportunities.
2. Get students in college or postsecondary training programs. Improve our mentoring and guidance access. Reduce financial barriers. Finances can no longer be used as an excuse at Cleveland State Community College. Take advantage of programs like Tennessee Achieves and the Jones Foundation scholarships which help pave the way.
3. Get students out. Enhance programs to increase graduation rates. Once they get in, they must complete their course of study, and on time with as little debt as possible.
4. Finish. Achieve our 2025 goal of “55.”
5. Create alignment and accountability. All departments, educational institutions and employers will work together to identify and assess skill gaps of the future and proactively close gaps. We need to keep score, measuring our investments to assure accountability and value.
Business and industry leaders, parents, educators and government officials must all partner together and increase our intensity of purpose to ensure Tennessee meets Haslam’s goal of “Drive to 55.” Failure to do so will have long-lasting, harmful effects on the economy of Bradley County, surrounding counties and Tennessee as a whole.
(Editor’s Note: This guest “Viewpoint” has been written and submitted to the Cleveland Daily Banner by Rick Creasy, director of Workforce Development at Cleveland State Community College.)