CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Tennessee has added more than 280,000 net new jobs in the private sector since Bill Haslam became governor six years ago, but Haslam told business leaders here Thursday night that sustaining such job growth will require more adults to be better trained or retrained for 21st century jobs.
"Everywhere I go, the first question I get from business prospects has to do with the quality of our workforce," Haslam told several hundred members of the Cleveland/Bradley County Chamber of Commerce at their 90th annual meeting. "Tennessee Promise (offering free community college to all qualified students) isn't just a catchy promise. It's critical for our future that we do better in how we educate and prepare our students for today's jobs."
Haslam, who is campaigning to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025, said today only about 35 percent of the state's workforce has any type of college degree or occupational certificate even though most jobs today require such training. Even among those who do go to college in Tennessee, 70 percent require some type of remedial course and most of those who start at some state colleges fail to get a degree.
But Haslam said Tennessee has made more progress than any state in the country in improving school standards and student performance. In the past three years, student ACT scores have improved every year and Tennessee has led the nation in gains in student performance. Last year, the high school graduation rate rose to 87 percent, the highest on record for Tennessee.
"Our teachers and educators are working much harder and we are demanding more than in the past," Haslam said. "Schools have changed and we have an education system that recognizes that."
In recognition of the improvement — and with an estimated $750 million budget surplus due to better-than-expected tax collections this year — Haslam is expected to propose an increase in teacher pay in the budget plan he presents to the Tennessee General Assembly.
Haslam declined to discuss how much of a raise he may outline in his State of the State address on Feb. 1. But the governor said K-12 education funding will continue to get his highest funding priority and he said he will work to boost teacher pay to help Tennessee become more competitive in recruiting the best talent in the classroom. Haslam also said he will push for more money and reforms to the state's higher education system, including more independent college governing boards at many of the Board of Regents colleges and universities.
But Haslam told business leaders he will not push for any tax increase this year and he told reporters this won't be the year to try to push through any gas tax increase, even though he said the state's transportation program needs a better funding source. The governor said road costs are rising while revenues from and gas taxes are being hurt by better vehicle mileage and more electric cars.
Cleveland business leaders thanked Haslam for completing the Exit 20 upgrade on Interstate 75, which the Chamber is now working to link to a 331-acre industrial park nearby. Haslam said there are $6 billion of approved but unfunded highway projects in the state, but he said "more education is needed" before he outlines a new funding source.
The governor also said more study is needed to assess the state's broadband infrastructure. Bradley County is considering a municipal broadband system like EPB in Chattanooga. The Haslam administration recently began a new broadband study, but the governor said "it was not my intent" to delay legislative consideration of reforms on municipal broadband territorial limits by the study.
However, Haslam said "the right balance must be reached" between government-owned utilities and investor-owned telecommunications companies in figuring out how to reach the estimated 200,000 or more Tennesseans who lack access to high-speed broadband.
Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6340.