Tennessee seeks to close STEM training gap


The number of new businesses starting and coming to Tennessee continues to grow, but they and the state’s existing employers continue to face a shortage of workers trained in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — as well as information technology.

The state’s businesses are already facing short-term or immediate worker shortages in 35 occupations, according to the Tennessee Department of Economic Development.

As workers retire over the next decade even more demand will exist for 25 of those occupations, according to the state’s Labor and Education Alignment Program (LEAP) report.

Many of these fields are targets of Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Drive to 55” initiative, which aims to increase the percentage of state residents with college degrees. “Tennessee Promise” provides free tuition at state community colleges and technical institutes for graduating seniors. “Tennessee Reconnect” provides free technical training for adults.

The state’s LEAP program provides funding to programs designed to match employers’ needs with educational resources.

Last year, Roane State received $1 million to improve its mechatronics training and to partner with programs at the Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology and area high schools. Employers supporting the effort included SL Tennessee, Dienamic Tooling Systems, Capstan Tennessee, AISIN and others.

The state also is spending money on such efforts outside of LEAP. Earlier this year, Pellissippi State opened its Megalab, an economic and workforce development partnership initiative that received millions in funding from local, state and federal sources.

Both facilities line up with the report’s fastest growing job — industrial machinery mechanics — which is expected to grow more than 26 percent by 2022. The other jobs in the top five are all STEM or IT related and projected to grow at least 19 percent: physical therapists, information security analysts, operations research analysts and physicians and surgeons in specific specialties.

“Far too long students have graduated with degrees that they cannot get jobs in while at the same time, businesses cannot find the skilled employees that they need,” Boyd said. “The problem is businesses and community leaders and their partners in education aren’t communicating and aren’t aligned. ... With data by region showing exactly where the unmet need is, our business, education and community leaders can work together to precisely and clearly bridge these gaps.”

The gap isn’t causing employers to avoid the state.

New business filings in Tennessee increased 5.3 percent in the third quarter to 8,289. Initial filings have now shown year-over-year growth for almost four years. Annual report filings also saw year-over-year growth of 8.2 percent, which together suggest future improvement in nonfarm employment, personal income and total tax revenues, according to the Tennessee Quarterly Business and Economic Indicators report released by the Secretary of State’s office.

“The data demonstrates how strong Tennessee’s economy is now, and how strong it could be moving forward,” says Secretary of State Tre Hargett. “We are in a position that would make just about any other state envious.”

Knox County ranked third in the state for initial business filings with 521 companies, a 4 percent decrease from the same period last year. It was the only county in the top four to show a decrease.

Davidson County led the way with 1,493 new filings. Shelby County was second with 1,071 filings. Hamilton County was fourth with 422 new filings.

Filings in these four largest counties accounted for 42.3 percent of all new filings in Tennessee.

The state’s economic rebound is getting attention in the trade press.

Tennessee has been recognized as No. 1 for Education: Tech Skills Leaders, No. 2 for Best Business Climate, No. 2 for Best Infrastructure, and No. 4 in Workforce Training Leaders by Business Facilities magazine, which specifically mentioned Tennessee Promise as a reason for the Tech Skills ranking.

Area Development magazine named Tennessee among the top 10 states in the nation for availability of skilled labor, effective workforce development programs, educational resources, costs of doing business and a favorable regulatory environment.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Shelley Kimel

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org


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