Chamber Executive Article Archive

Drive To 55

By Laura Ward

Drive to 55
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I wanted to go to college when I got out of school; I just didn’t know how to.”

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Quick to acknowledge a great career with the Metropolitan Nashville Fire Department, Capt. Bill Curran knew he was missing opportunities because he lacked a college degree.

Curran, who is a 25-year veteran, started to pursue an associate degree about a decade ago, but left the program before graduating because he couldn’t afford it. A few years later, one of his sons encouraged him to go back to school. “I wanted to show my kids that – since I expect them to be able to do it – I could do it myself,” Curran said.

So, that’s exactly what he did.

Curran enrolled as a student at Volunteer State Community College and earned an associate degree in fire science technology. Curran’s credentials helped him earn a raise and has opened the door for more career opportunities. Professional benefits aside, Curran is proud to have finished his education and to be the first of his 10 siblings to earn a degree. He’s even prouder that his four children are college graduates.

Middle Tennessee is home to about a quarter-of-a-million people like Bill Curran—people who have some amount of college education but never finished earning a degree. That group, and adults who have never attended college, is the target audience for Middle Tennessee Reconnect, an initiative of the state’s Drive to 55 Alliance. The initiative’s goal is to help more adults complete a postsecondary degree or credential. (Editor’s note: Drive to 55 derives its name from Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s mission to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by 2025.)

The Middle Tennessee Reconnect Community, part of the state-wide Tennessee Reconnect program, is a collaborative initiative of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce that launched in March 2016. In little more than a year since, the program can hang its hat on early successes.

After securing participation from 12 of the region’s largest employers, the chamber issued a workforce study to gauge education attainment and respondents’ interest in completing a degree or credential. Results are encouraging: more than 8,000 responses were received between July and September 2016.

The survey and its follow-up report are both part of a broader assessment of workforce needs in the Nashville area. Results of the Reconnect Employer Survey provide baseline metrics that are used to support goals of the Middle Tennessee Reconnect Community. Employers use the findings to be better informed about how to best serve their employee Reconnectors – the people who are working to complete a degree or earn a certificate.

Drive55 Image1 Representative from Nashville State with Darrell Brown, a Reconnect advisor, at a launch event.
Drive55 Image2 Reconnect Café at a Middle Tennessee employer.
Drive55 Image3 Attendees gather at a Reconnect launch event.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) was one of the first organizations in broader Nashville region to sign on to participate in the survey. And the agency continues to be a supporter of the Tennessee Reconnect initiative. TDOT hosted a “Reconnect Café,” where a Reconnect Advisor was stationed on-site during lunch to provide advisement services to employees considering a return to school.

Assisting adults in program choice and with the financial puzzle are just a few of the services offered by advisors at an employer-hosted Reconnect Café. Although the Tennessee Department of Transportation does not offer tuition reimbursement, it has implemented policies that support employees pursuing education attainment. Employees at TDOT and other companies can, however, attend any one of the 27 Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology completely free of tuition and fees.

“We’ve found those employees who pursue education while working at TDOT not only appreciate the support, but they are quick to put their newfound knowledge to work, making the department stronger,” says Ryan Simpson, assistant HR director for TDOT.

Findings from a series of studies released by Lumina Foundation in 2016 show a 129 percent return on investment for every dollar an organization invests in the education of its workforce. Having supportive programs in place ensures that employees can move to-and-through a degree program, eventually bringing new knowledge and skills with them to the workplace, leading to increased productivity and innovation.

Nearly 1,200 people in Middle Tennessee alone are working to begin or finish a degree or credential as part of the Reconnect initiative. The Volunteer State has had a taste of success with the program and the state isn’t slowing down on its Drive to 55. Moving through the legislature now is a new bill that, if passed, would create a program to provide Reconnect grants to adults attending one of Tennessee’s community colleges.

Communities everywhere, not just the cities and towns of Middle Tennessee, are facing an imminent workforce challenge. It’s critical for chambers of commerce, the business community, education institutions and government at every level to work together to build initiatives that support a talent pool that’s agile and prepared to meet the demands of a changing workforce.



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