Jane Roberts, Memphis Commercial Appeal
Jonathan Stringfellow steeled himself, then walked to the microphone next to Gov. Bill Haslam and told the crowd at Smith & Nephew how fortunate he was to be able to quit his job digging ditches and enroll in the machinist program at Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Covington.
If he were starting school later this year, he’d stand to save $700 a trimester through TN Reconnect, the scholarship that goes into effect this summer and is designed to help the roughly 1 million Tennessee adults who started a degree but did not finish.
It’s part of Haslam’s Drive to 55, the statewide effort to have 55 percent of adults hold some kind of postsecondary degree by 2025. Haslam has spent the week promoting TN Reconnect, which will cover any tuition left after other resources are exhausted.
“Here’s the reality,” Haslam said. “If every Tennessean between second and 12th grade completed high school in the next ten years, and the chances of that unfortunately are not very good, and then, every one of those went on and got a certificate or degree, we would get about halfway to our goal.
“We have to have some way to reach out to all these adults out there who would love an additional degree or certificate but don’t have a chance to do that,” Haslam said in a corner carved out on the shipping floor at Smith & Nephew for the announcement.
The event was attended by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton; Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell; Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville; Rep. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis; and numerous representatives from Memphis manufacturing, including Gene Baker, Smith & Nephew vice president, and Willie Gregory, head of community relations at Nike.
Stringfellow, 28, is completing an 18-month machinist program at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Covington and working in the machining lab at Smith & Nephew, where he’s also earning on-the-job school credit.
“I make $16 an hour and I have all the room in the world to grow,” he said.
When the economy fell apart in 2008, Stringfellow said his family’s construction business was decimated.
“I ended up choosing a technology center,” he said. “I need to go somewhere where you can work with your hands, and you can get dirty if you want to.”
He tested out segments of the course and quickly qualified for the student work program at Smith & Nephew.
“This could help completely change someone’s life,” Stringfellow said, thanking Haslam for it and Baker for taking a chance on him.
Applicants are to register by May 15 at TNReconnect.gov.
Business leaders said the free access to education is the shot the southwest corner of Tennessee needs for a skilled workforce.
“There is not a portion of the state better positioned to take advantage of your program than the one you are in right now,” Glen Fenter, incoming CEO of the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce, told Haslam.
Reconnect is the adult corollary of TN Promise, the last-dollar scholarship available for the first time this year to high school seniors.
TN Promise and Reconnect are funded through a Tennessee Lottery endowment. In most cases, community college tuition does not exceed what income-eligible students get through the federal Pell grant, which has raised questions about who will benefit from the program.
Reconnect got its soft rollout in mid-March when all TCAT campuses held open houses. “We had about 200 people register at our campus on Alabama and our aviation campus (near the airport),” said Memphis TCAT President Roland Rayner.