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Officials line up Wednesday morning at a press conference before the Tennessee Association of Manufacturers luncheon at the Chattanooga Convention Center. From left, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, Nancy Hoffman of Jobs for the Future, Annie White of Pathways to Prosperity of Southeast Tennessee and Tim Spires, president and CEO of the Tennessee Association of Manufacturers.

Manufacturing excellence awards given Wednesday by the Tennessee Association of Manufacturers

Company of the Year: Lodge Manufacturing

Energy: AdTech Ceramics

Safety: BASF

Environment: Grace

Associate member: Elliott

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Find out more about opportunities for youth to pursue a career in manufacturing at Pathways to Prosperity of Southeast Tennessee’s website, www.setnpathways.com

About half of Americans in their mid 20s still haven't figured out their career path — even if they have completed a college degree.

This "forgotten half" could benefit in their teens from getting out of the classroom and stepping into the workplace as interns or apprentices, said Nancy Hoffman, a vice president at Boston-based Jobs for the Future. She was the keynote speaker Wednesday morning at the Tennessee Association of Manufacturers' annual excellence awards luncheon at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

"We have way too dim a view of what teenagers can do in this country," Hoffman said at a press conference before the luncheon. "We see 16-year-olds in European companies really contributing to the bottom line."

Hoffman was in town partly to bring attention to Pathways to Prosperity of Southeast Tennessee, a nonprofit organization that helps connect public school students in Hamilton, Bradley, Marion, and McMinn counties and Cleveland City Schools with hands-on learning opportunities with area manufacturers.

A four-year college degree isn't for everyone, Hoffman said — and neither is sitting in class all day.

While there was a time when parents might have looked down on a vocational career path, "you can make a really good living in this town in some of these vocations," Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said at the press conference.

And forget the smokestacks that prompted national TV news anchorman Walter Cronkite to call Chattanooga the U.S.'s dirtiest city.

"You can about literally eat off the floors in these places," Coppinger said.

Tim Spires, president and CEO of the Chattanooga-based Tennessee Association of Manufacturers, said "manufacturing isn't what it was in the past."

Students in the Pathways to Prosperity of Southeast Tennessee have been paired with such companies as Gestamp in Hamilton County and Cormatech Inc., in Cleveland, Tenn.

"The kids eat it up, because they know they are contributing in the real world," the program's business project manager Annie White said.

The website is up and running for Pathways to Prosperity of Southeast Tennessee, she said, and people should check it out for more information.

At its award luncheon, which was a part of Manufacturers Week, the Tennessee Association of Manufacturers recognized Lodge Manufacturing Co. in South Pittsburg for its top Company of the Year award for 2016.

"Lodge has demonstrated excellence in many areas and has continued to grow its business, even making a product that never wears out," Spires said. "Employees at Lodge are very much engaged in continuous improvement initiatives and the company is a good corporate citizen and strong supporter of the community where it operates."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/MeetsForBusiness or twitter.com/meetforbusiness or 423-757-6651.

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