Gov. Bill Haslam recognized the 588 graduates of Chattanooga State Community College’s Tennessee College of Applied Technology at their commencement ceremony in Hixson on Friday.
Many of the graduates are beneficiaries of Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative, one of the governor’s legacies.
“We started to the Drive to 55 about five years ago with the idea that not enough Tennesseans had a degree or certificate,” Haslam said. “More Tennesseans need opportunity.”
Drive to 55 aims to increase the number of Tennesseans with post-high school educations to 55 percent by 2025 through a number of initiatives, including Tennessee Promise, which offers scholarships to high school graduates entering community colleges.
Among the graduates Friday were 55 welders, 50 electricians, 45 cosmetologists and 29 medical assistants, said James Barrott, executive vice president of TCAT.
“We recognize the honorable Governor Haslam and we honor him. … [Haslam] as governor has shaped the face of higher education in many ways,” Barrott said.
In 2017, Tennessee Reconnect was established to expand upon the Promise initiative and extend scholarship dollars for up to two years of community college to all adults in the state. When Drive to 55 was launched, only about 32 percent of Tennessee adults had a degree or certificate.
Reconnect also targets the more than 900,000 working-age adults statewide who have some college credit but did not earn a degree, which as of 2017 was 25 percent of adults in Hamilton County.
Haslam noted that he was there mostly to celebrate — and thank — the graduates.
“So if you’re sitting out there thinking, ‘Wow, I’d like to be one of these folks, I’d like to do what they did’ — you can do that, and it’s free,” he said.
“I’m here to thank you all for doing that,” Haslam told the graduates.
He also noted that since Drive to 55 was launched, as the state has come out of the recession, more than 400,000 jobs have been added across Tennessee.
“I was thrilled when I heard the list of degrees being awarded today, you’re meeting a need for us,” he said. “Chattanooga and our surrounding communities are seeing strong economic growth, and because of that we are glad to see that there are jobs waiting for you.”
Haslam said he hoped the legacy of the Drive to 55 initiative would be that more people were prepared to fill valuable jobs.
“I hope it will mean a lot more Tennesseans are prepared for the workforce, because we know that in six years more than 50 percent of the available jobs will require more than a high school diploma,” he said.
Officials and Haslam also congratulated a variety of students including veterans and first-generation college students.
Barrott recognized student leaders and SkillsUSA award winners. Thirteen Chattanooga State TCAT students earned medals at the National SkillsUSA Leadership and Skills Conference in Louisville, Kentucky this spring.
More than 6,300 students competed in the national showcase, which is one of the largest national skill competitions and includes a variety of competitions in trade and technical skills ranging from robotics, automotive technology, criminal justice, aviation maintenance and public speaking.