Marion County pre-apprenticeship effort lauded in Jasper, Tennessee

Staff photo by Ben Benton / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, standing, talks with pre-apprenticeship participant Garrison Christopher and Josh Willis on Wednesday at Valmont Industries in Jasper.

JASPER, Tenn. - A partnership between Valmont Industries in Marion County, Tennessee, local schools and Chattanooga State Community College will provide training to the inaugural cohort of high school students who signed up Wednesday for a pre-apprenticeship program during National Apprenticeship Week.

Eight Marion County high school seniors make up the inaugural group who sat alongside Gov. Bill Lee on Wednesday as he and officials from Valmont and Chattanooga State described the pre-apprenticeship program and its benefits. The eight students were hired by Valmont Industries to participate in the new work-based program and officially signed up for the program on Wednesday.

This all appropriately took place during National Apprenticeship Week, but its roots go back to 2018.

"This signing day represents an innovative partnership between Valmont Industries, Marion County Schools and Chattanooga State Community College, and it is an excellent example of a high-quality workforce training solution," Chattanooga State president Rebecca Ashford said at the announcement in Jasper.

"The students earned industry-recognized safety training and credentials at Chattanooga State's Kimball Campus prior to starting their on-the-job portion of the program," Ashford said.

photo Staff photo by Ben Benton / Gov. Bill Lee talks about a pre-apprenticeship program launched through a partnership between Chattanooga State Community College, Marion County Schools, and Valmont Industries on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019.

"Last year, Chattanooga State launched the region's first college-sponsorship registered apprenticeship program and I am so proud to have four Department of Labor-approved apprenticeship programs developed by the college specifically for businesses within our service area," Ashford said. She said there were two more such programs "in the pipeline."

"What started off as a single class offered once when the Tennessee Chamber introduced our team to the project, has developed into a full program that connects students to careers," she said.

Gov. Lee said the pre-apprenticeship idea goes to the heart of his vision for Tennessee's work force.

Lee worked summers as a high-schooler learning the heating and air conditioning business, he told the standing room only crowd at Valmont on Wednesday. He said he values his initial vocational education at the ground level.

Some people have "giftings" of certain aptitudes for vocational work but educational resources can be scarce, he said.

"This is why Tennessee will be different from other states in the future. Because we have a commitment to developing a work force," Lee said.

"Really, I was an apprentice," Lee said of his work as a helper to a more skilled technician. As a businessman, Lee said his company put 1,000 people through an apprenticeship program because Tennessee schools were not designed to train people for vocational or agricultural jobs.

Valmont plant manager Bruce Bacon said the students hired at Valmont are doing real work that goes to real customers.

"The students are working in real-world projects at Valmont and we are proud to have invested in the talent pipeline we are building," Bacon said. "We wouldn't be here talking about this without community support."

A couple of the students applauded the chance for training in remarks made Wednesday.

"I was offered this program over summer break and I jumped at it," welding pre-apprentice student Seth Davis told the crowd assembled at Valmont. He thanked the Valmont employees who had taken him under their wings.

"It was a really good opportunity," he said.

Welding pre-apprentice student Garrison Christopher said he was following in the footsteps of his older brother who is already a welder. He said company and school officials got in touch with his parents.

"Valmont has opened up a lot of opportunities for us," he said.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.