Statewide, many independent business owners are hard-pressed to find qualified workers, according to a survey of the National Federation of Independent Business’s members. The federation represents more than 6,000 independent businesses across the state, and 88 percent of those surveyed members said Tennessee should be doing more to provide vocational and technology training for high school students who don’t have their sights set on a four-year university.
“Tennessee continues to do better than most states economically, but challenges come with success,” State Director Jim Brown said, noting record-low unemployment rates of 3 percent are very positive but also present challenges. “NFIB will be working more directly with the executive and legislative branches and other business groups to ensure Tennessee is meaningfully and reasonably meeting the specific workforce needs that various industries have in our communities.”
With these needs come the challenge of training workers for an evolving workforce and the need for comprehensive technical and vocational training. School systems in Northeast Tennessee, such as Johnson City Schools, with their College, Career and Technical Education program at Science Hill, have been working to get students in the district started as early as possible.
According to Julia Decker, director of the program that includes around 1,000 students, teaching practical job skills is what the courses in the program are all about. Students take courses that teach architecture and engineering design, automotive technology, business management and administration, construction technology, cosmetology and criminal justice, among other disciplines.
In the last two years alone, additional dentistry and pharmacy courses have been introduced as the program has added more emphasis on health-centered courses.
“When we go look at the program, we’re looking at our area — what’s here and not here,” she said. “Our first group of clinical students who will actually go out in the field will start this semester, and our new pharmacy tech course will start this semester. We have 12 students (in pharmacy tech). These students will be able to take a test and get their certificate when they’re 18.”
Local high school career and technical education program leaders say the problem isn’t in the programs offered, though — it’s letting students know that this kind of training is available and a viable option in the first place.
Bill Flanary said a challenge he’s been trying to work with during his 25 years as the Washington County CTE director is letting students know about these viable career paths.
Flanary said he believes that Washington County’s two high schools — David Crockett and Daniel Boone — do a great job preparing students for the workforce or for further vocational training, the issue is just getting the word out before kids get to high school.
“If you were to interview 25 seventh-graders, just really solid students, and ask them what they want to do for a living, they’ll say ‘doctor, lawyer, actor,’ ” he said. “We have worked to show them this world of occupations and the careers that are out there, and they’re still focused on what they see on TV. I wish I could get into these kids’ heads to let them know that you don’t need to be a brain surgeon to have a career.”
He added that interest in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — may help usher some students into trying some of these courses and giving vocational career paths a chance. Both Flanary and Decker said a focus on evolving technology may be instrumental in helping students see other paths besides a strict academic educational path.
But vocational skills and academic knowledge often go hand in hand.
“Our welding is all computerized machinery now, and in construction core, what we’re buying is more computerized machinery instead of that standard saw or welder. To keep up with the automotive industry, everything is being computerized,” Decker said. “So we have students reading manuals that are actually for higher reading levels than some of their (general education) material.
“For them to move up, they have to have the knowledge, rigor and reading level for those top-level courses.”