Governor: Cut some higher ed programs to fund new ones

photo Steven Fox, right. 2012 U.S. Amateur golf champion, presents a signed cap to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

To get state funding for new programs in Tennessee higher education, older ones will have to go.

"What we want to know is: If you want to invest in something new, creative, what are you going to divest? Most great businesses do that," Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday at a roundtable of legislators and business and higher education leaders in Chattanooga.

Still, while he said he's committed to ending Tennessee's decades-long practice of slashing post-secondary education funding, it doesn't appear that new funding will be available anytime soon.

Haslam spoke at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the seventh and last in a series of statewide discussions. The listening tour was meant to inform the governor's policy decisions as he sets out to overhaul higher education.

With continued cost increases, particularly for Medicaid, Haslam said, colleges and universities must prioritize where they spend their money. The state has cut higher education funding for decades, putting more burden on families and students through tuition and fee hikes.

"When we look at capital for post-secondary education, we're going to look at: Are we putting that where the demand is? ... I think you'll see us funding post-secondary education more strategically because of some of these conversations," Haslam said.

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"Part of the issue is on us. And part of it's on post-secondary to figure out how we're going to do this in a more effective way."

The state's K-12 schools, colleges, universities and technical centers also need to do a better job of meeting the workforce needs of Tennessee businesses, the governor said.

"We're talking about everything from welders to truck drivers to nuclear engineers," he said.

Executives at the meeting said graduates come to their companies lacking basic knowledge in areas such as math and literacy. But just as importantly, many lack soft skills such as critical thinking, being able to make a presentation and teamwork.

Sharon Haas, vice president of human resources at Unum, said the disability insurer seeks candidates with strong verbal and written communication skills, but they're tough to find.

"What we're finding with candidates we are interviewing is that the knowledge base is broad but shallow," she said. "In other words, they can talk in sound bites and bullet points. But they struggle with doing presentations, with active listening skills and being able to ask pertinent questions."

Haas said Unum had to implement a new spell-check program on its internal software because so many people don't know basic grammar. The company recently had to plow through a pool of more than 300 applicants to hire eight disability benefits specialists -- front-line employees who make a starting salary of $38,000 to $40,000, she said.

Haas agreed with Haslam that some university and college programs need to be re-examined.

"When we look at the kind of degrees that candidates are coming to us [with], we sort of scratch our head, going, 'Why would somebody spend all this time and money and get a degree in sports management? What do you do with that?'" she said.

Hans-Herbert Jagla, Volks-wagen's executive vice president of human resources in Chattanooga, said the auto company struggles to find engineers and other qualified staffers. For every 100 applicants, the company will hire about eight, he said, while the other 92 often lack attributes such as discipline, creativity and a mindset toward continuous improvement.

The discussion over the workforce must center around education and ways to improve it, Jagla said.

"If you are talking about this, if you discuss it, if you are critical of this, we will really change something and move ahead," he said.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith said some schools, such as Normal Park Museum Magnet, infuse project-based learning and other crucial soft skills in their curriculum, but such coursework is not currently streamlined across the district.

"We have it in small pockets," he said.

Smith said the transition to the Common Core standards, considered more rigorous and universal than previous teaching standards, will help infuse skills such as critical thinking into classrooms. Tennessee and 45 other states have so far committed to implementing Common Core math and language arts standards over the next few years.

While much of the responsibility is being put on educators, the governor acknowledged that some of the deficiencies in soft skills stem from students' home lives.

"The reality is if you look at where the gap is, it's coming from everywhere," Haslam said. "A lot of kids aren't learning that at home if you want to be really blunt about it."