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Staff file photo / Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Jeff McCord was at the Gestamp plant on Hickory Valley Road on Friday.

Helping transport high school students to and from their jobs and offering tax incentives for companies who hire them were ideas raised Friday to spur more apprentices in Chattanooga.

"This is less about innovation but more about execution," said Jeff McCord, Tennessee's commissioner of labor and workforce development, to about 30 business people and educators who gathered at the offices of Volkswagen supplier Gestamp.

The company has been cited for its efforts with Hamilton County's Work-Based Learning Program which permits Gestamp to identify and train high school juniors and seniors to work at its production facilities in Chattanooga.

"There are pockets of excellence in the state," said McCord. "This is one of them."

He said that his aim is to learn "best practices" around work-based learning and take those to other parts of Tennessee.

McCord said that providing financial incentives to companies to expand or locate in Tennessee is something other states do as well. But, offering businesses a skilled workforce is a difference-maker, he said.

"It's a competitive advantage," McCord said.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said that offering companies talented employees is "the critical question of our age."

"We want to make sure people have the skills," he said.

Kyle Page, project director for the Partnerships in Industry & Education Center in Bradley County, Tennessee, said transportation is "a huge issue" for connecting students with apprenticeships.

"That's a barrier," said Page, who is overseeing the retrofit of a 200,000-square-foot facility that's becoming a regional education and training site.

Molly Blankenship, executive director of the Chattanooga 2.0 education initiative, said that it's estimated that one in 10 families in Hamilton County don't have access to one vehicle.

But, she said, that solving the transportation barrier is "a complicated issue."

Christina Henderson, who works in human resources at Gestamp, said some students use Uber to get to their jobs at Gestamp.

"It's definitely an issue," she said.

Also, Henderson suggested providing tax incentives to companies which have apprentices.

Brittany Cannon, the work-based learning coordinator for the Bradley school district, said there's a perception among some people that manufacturing won't produce the kinds of jobs they want.

She said that exposing teachers and others to industry helps change that perception.

Henderson said Gestamp, which provides stamped parts for VW's Chattanooga assembly plant, has 56 apprentices. Some 30 are high school students, while 26 are working in connection with Chattanooga State Community College.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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