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Matt Fulbright, a freshman at Chattanooga State Technical Community College, sits at the computer station where he uses the AutoCAD program to perform computer aided drafting for the Tennessee Valley Authority's CADnet program on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The training helps students gain real-world engineering experience.
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Matt Fulbright, a freshman at Chattanooga State Technical Community College, sits at the computer station where he uses the AutoCAD program to perform computer aided drafting for the Tennessee Valley Authority's CADnet program on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The training helps students gain real-world engineering experience.

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For more information on the CADNet program, contact Shane Bales at msbales@tva.gov.

Since he can remember, Matthew Fulbright knew he wanted to be an engineer, and he's dreamed of working at the Tennessee Valley Authority.

While attending Walker Valley High School, Fulbright worked hard and earned good grades. But he still doubted his odds of landing his dream job.

"A lot of kids just don't think they have a shot at a job like that," he said.

But last year, everything changed when a teacher approached Fulbright, 17, and asked him if he wanted to enroll in TVA's computer-aided drafting program, called CADNet.

The program provides high school students with real-world engineering experience and technical training, with the goal of better equipping them to compete in the workforce. CADNet pays high school students to work on computer drawings for TVA, and many students continue working in the program after they graduate high school as TVA provides paid internships while they earn degrees in engineering.

More than 10,000 students across the Tennessee Valley have participated in the CADNet program since it started in 1995, and more than 100 students in the Chattanooga region are enrolled in the program each semester.

CADNet was designed as a tool to recruit and train the next generation of engineers, providing students with the opportunity for a career.

Chattanooga 2.0, an initiative working to provide all residents with access to livable-wage jobs, is hoping more businesses will join TVA and invest in workforce development, as about 80 percent of the livable-wage jobs coming to the county require a post-secondary degree or certificate, which only 38 percent of residents have attained.

By 2025, Chattanooga 2.0 organizers want to see the number of residents with a post-secondary degree or certificate increase to 75 percent.

Without CADNet, 17-year-old Kellie Keith said, she would never be working as an engineer at TVA and may not have been the first in her family to earn a college degree.

Unlike Fulbright, Keith said she never considered being an engineer in high school. During her time at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School, she decided to participate in the CADNet program because it allowed her to leave school for a halfday and work downtown.

But once she started in the program, she realized she enjoyed the work and the opportunities an engineering career could provide. She continued working at TVA through school and was hired full time once she earned degrees from Chattanooga State Community College and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

"This program gave me a career," Keith said. "And a good one."

Keith said being involved in CADnet while earning her nuclear engineering degree was helpful, because she had mentors and people who were willing to tutor and encourage her through tough classes. She also said working in the field while studying it in the classroom made her more prepared and motivated to succeed.

Fulbright is now midway through his first semester at Chattanooga State, and he continues to work in the CADNet program. He plans to start a paid internship soon. After completing his associate degree, Fulbright wants to transfer to UTC to take advantage of the new partnership between the two schools. That agreement allows students to complete a bachelor's degree in engineering while working full time at the utility company.

"This is the opportunity of a lifetime," Fulbright said. "I get paid to come do what I like."

The new engineering partnership between Chattanooga State and UTC was strategically designed to make it easier for students to transfer between programs and not lose any credit hours, according to Trevor Elliott, assistant professor with UTC's College of Engineering and Computer Science.

"This [partnership] provides us with another stream of great students," Elliott said, adding that those who come through the CADNet program tend to be more proficient and professional than their peers.

Fulbright said knowing his classes will transfer makes school less worrisome, and it allows him to take advantage of the Tennessee Promise program, which foots the bill for his two years at Chattanooga State.

Janice Horn, the school-to-work supervisor at CADNet, said she is proud of TVA's commitment to CADNet and providing kids with the support they need to have a career in engineering.

Horn, an engineer for more than 30 years, said she loves working with CADNet students and training the engineers of tomorrow.

"For me, it is all about giving back to the students and helping them develop," she said. "We are here to support students in what they want to do and I love seeing them succeed."

The program spans both urban and rural schools — Tyner Academy in Hamilton County has a CADNet site and the program is in other schools scattered across neighboring counties.

Horn said the program is cost-effective because of the quality work CADNet students complete for TVA.

Fulbright said one of his favorite parts of the job is knowing the work he is doing is valued.

"It's cool knowing what I am doing is being used," he said. "What I do is helpful to the community."

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or krainwater@timesfreepress.com. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.

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