Nashville leaders focus on postsecondary education


Mike Krause, director of Tennessee Promise (Photo: File/Gannett Tennessee )

Jamie McGee, The Tennessean

Nashville-area employers are headed for a massive labor shortage in the next decade, and boosting postsecondary education enrollment is one way community leaders are trying to address the issue.

Middle Tennessee education and economic development leaders met Wednesday as part of the Nashville Region’s Vital Signs initiative led by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Metropolitan Planning Organization. The focus on postsecondary education is meant to connect education programs with employers’ needs in the workforce and to help students build skills in high-demand sectors.

By 2021, there will be a workforce deficit of 34,800 people, compared with a surplus of 23,900 in 2012, according to estimates provided by the Nashville chamber. Meanwhile, employers will be requiring more postsecondary education in the form of associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.

“What employers are looking for is really increasing,” said Laura Moore, policy vice president at the chamber. “Before, you could have a high school diploma or less. Employers are shifting to (requiring) more credentials.”

Nashvillians with some college or an associate’s degree earned a median income of $32,410 in 2013. That’s compared with $27,496 for those with a high school diploma and $45,718 for those with a bachelor’s degree. In Nashville, 41 percent of adults have postsecondary credentials, according to the Lumina Foundation, a private foundation focused on higher education that is partnering with the chamber.

The postsecondary focus comes after a 2013 Vital Signs report that tracked issues affecting the region’s economic well-being and highlighted the need to increase the number of adults with higher degrees.

The Vital Signs group is working to develop a regional strategy to help more students obtain degrees, whether through Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise program or by encouraging working adults to finish degrees they may have started years earlier.

Tennessee Promise, which offers all high school graduates free tuition to attend community colleges and technical schools, has received applications from 20,000 high school seniors so far.

The state hit its initial goal of 20,000 more than a month in advance of the deadline of Nov. 1, according to Tennessee Promise director Mike Krause. He emphasized that building awareness of the program is still a top priority so that more students will apply.

“We will now be really focused on the state having geographic parity so that every student has received a true opportunity to pursue the Tennessee Promise,” he said.

Krause said his team has spent the past few months designing the application process, training guidance counselors and speaking to school superintendents to help them inform students about the opportunity. So far, 23 percent of Davidson County high school seniors have applied, 9 percent in Williamson County and 68 percent in Wilson County.

Wilson County Director of Schools Donna Wright, whose county boasts a graduate rate that exceeds 95 percent, said she would like to see more focus on ensuring students are successfully completing postsecondary degree programs.

“We have a graduation rate to take pride in, but what does it mean when they exit?” she said. “Once we get them into college, technical schools, whatever it might be, how do we keep them there so they graduate?”

Reach Jamie McGee at 615.259.8071 and on Twitter @JamieMcGee_.

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