Drake: Unlocking workforce potential through apprenticeships

Bo Drake

Our region has experienced incredible growth over the last 20 years. We've become a destination for many travelers wanting to enjoy the playground we've built. Companies such as Volkswagen, Wacker Chemie and others have chosen to make us home, while McKee Foods, Chattanooga Bakery and many others have always called this place home. As we continue to grow, the need for a skilled workforce continues to grow as well.

With unemployment rates at historic lows, our business and industry partners are struggling to find the talented workforce they need. This painful reality affects our local employers and our region's ability to attract other economic development opportunities. Although it has been suggested that we need to import additional skilled talent from other regions around the U.S., more than 900,000 Tennesseans have earned some college credits but lack a degree. We have tons of potential to grow our own talented workforce by creating new opportunities in our own backyard.

Chattanooga and Hamilton County are blessed with a diverse population, yet not everyone in our community is afforded the same opportunity. Many of our fellow Tennesseans work in relatively low wage jobs with little room for growth, while others work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Our citizens are hardworking, dedicated, smart and reliable, yet many of them understandably yearn for more. They would love a job, or better yet, a career, that provided enough for them to live comfortably and secure their financial futures. They would love to invest in themselves and their communities.

As I look into my crystal ball of economic and workforce development, I see incredible potential for our business and industry partners. As the saying goes, a rising tide raises all boats, and I firmly believe that. Not only do I believe it, I believe Chattanooga State plays a central role in ensuring it happens.

For that very reason, we recently announced in partnership with the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the establishment of Chattanooga State's first college-sponsored, registered, nonunion apprenticeship program. We intend to grow these earn while you learn opportunities into multiple sectors as demand dictates. In fact, the Department of Labor reports that apprenticeships can be created for more than 1,000 occupations.

You might ask, how do these programs work? One great example right here in Tennessee is at Northeast State Community College, while Harper College in Illinois is another. Companies experiencing a talent shortage should connect with us, and if their need is outside of our current apprenticeship offering, we will work directly with them to create a new apprenticeship program. Companies can use these programs to promote from within, or to identify external talent they are willing to hire as apprentices.

Programs will be designed to allow students to work and go to college without overlap. Companies will assign a mentor to their apprentices to work with them on the job. As students' progress through their academics and time on-the-job learning their occupation, they will earn pay increases based on well-defined expectations.

Employees looking to grow within their companies should talk with their managers about apprenticeship programs.

Students interested in an apprenticeship program are expected to be prepared at college-level to be considered for the program. Students who need remediation will have opportunities to increase their academic preparedness and gain entry-level skills through pre-apprenticeship pathways the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, Chattanooga State and other community partners are developing. Once a student qualifies to be eligible for the apprenticeship program, the college will work with employers to schedule interviews. Apprentices will earn apprenticeships on their own merits, and employers will select apprentices of their own choosing as they hire and invest in apprentices to meet their unique needs.

Whether a company wants to grow from within, or recruit new talent, these earn while you learn programs provide a solution to small, medium and large companies, and apprenticeship programs have high retention rates. The Department of Labor reports 91 percent of apprentices retain employment after the program ends. Apprenticeship programs are designed to create opportunity and unlock potential throughout our region as a flexible training strategy.

Bo Drake is vice president of economic and workforce development at Chattanooga State Community College.