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Plant director Corey Jahn, left, speaks with Gov. Bill Lee as he tours Gestamp Inc. on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. This was Gov. Lee's first visit to Chattanoga as Governor of Tennessee.

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Bill Lee in Chattanooga

Workforce development was the theme of the afternoon as Gov. Bill Lee made his first official trip to Chattanooga on Friday.

He and a gauntlet of local public officials toured automotive supplier Gestamp, met with high school students who are part of its work-based learning program and attended a roundtable on vocational education hosted by the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce.

Lee, a businessman from Williamson County, believes there needs to be a greater emphasis on technical and vocational education, and spoke of it often on the campaign trail. He said Friday's visit to Gestamp was an important one.

"This is a perfect example today not only of a great job-producing Tennessee-based company, but one that partners in the ways that needs to be done to prepare the workforce of the future," he said.

In partnership with Hamilton County Schools, Gestamp houses Tennessee's first work-based learning program to earn a U.S. Department of Labor registered apprenticeship designation.

Launched in 2017 with 30 students, the program currently has 23 high school juniors and seniors enrolled from 12 local schools. The students work half of the day and attend classes on site for the other half, earning a real paycheck and mimicking a full-time job like any other Gestamp employee.

Corey Jahn, Gestamp's plant director, said Gestamp realized several years ago that finding the talent it needed here was a problem.

"Our goal as Gestamp is that Chattanooga is the automotive center of the United States," Jahn said. "You could either sit here and be competitive and try to steal everyone else's employees or you could go back to the high schools and young adults and train them, give them a skill that they can use to perform a job and create a living for them and their families and make an impact on some young peoples' lives."

Since the program launched, all 22 of its seniors graduated in 2018 and the program recruited 19 more students this year. The initiative was the first of many by local businesses to increase work-based and vocational education to both provide quality opportunities to students and cultivate the talent needed to attract and retain competitive businesses in the region.

Lee said the rest of the state could learn from those efforts.

"Chattanooga is a leader in this and is where we need to go in every community in the state," he said. "We need to not only strengthen what's happening here and find out how we can make what you're doing easier, but then duplicate this and take it other places."

He anticipates moves in the near future that will enhance and increase education initiatives and workforce development opportunities for students and businesses.

"You will see just in the coming days, a real focus and emphasis we want to push is strengthened high school opportunities," he said.

Lee spoke favorably of directing funds toward career pathways, additional career counselors in schools and other opportunities for students to engage in dual-credit, dual-enrollment and work-based learning opportunities.

Many of those focuses are mirrored by Hamilton County Schools, which has significantly expanded its career and technical education programs under the leadership of Superintendent Bryan Johnson. This year, the district rolled out more than 20 Future Ready Institutes, small learning academies focused around an industry theme, that are partnered with local businesses.

The Hamilton County school board has also included expanding access to dual enrollment funding to students in 9th and 10th grades — currently, only students in 11th and 12th grades can receive financial assistance for courses taken through local community or technical colleges — in its legislative priorities for which it will lobby this spring.

Johnson noted the district's desire to work collaboratively with industry partners Friday.

"We really have begun to shift our thinking as we sit with different business partners. It's not so much what we bring to the table, but what we need, because we have to have an understanding of where the future jobs are," Johnson said. "We are very fortunate to be here and have great partners."

Ahead of Lee's Friday tour, which also included a visit to the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing in Kingsport to talk vocational education, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry also emphasized its support of expanding vocational education opportunities to build a stronger workforce.

"As Chattanooga's job market expands with the addition of electric car manufacturing at the Volkswagen plant, Governor Bill Lee is bringing much-needed attention to the importance of workforce development," reads a statement from Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry CEO Bradley Jackson. "Tennessee's business community is dedicated to working with state and local government to expand educational opportunities beyond the traditional four year college model and build a diverse Tennessee workforce."

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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