By Dr. Flora W. Tydings, Chancellor, Tennessee Board of Regents

Ford Motor Company calls its Blue Oval City project “the largest, most advanced, most efficient auto production facility in its 118-year history” and “a massive, environmentally and technologically advanced campus” to produce the next generation of Ford’s electric F-Series trucks and the advanced lithium-ion batteries to power future electric Ford and Lincoln vehicles.

Governor Lee says the $5.6 billion investment in the 3,600-acre Blue Oval City campus at the West Tennessee Megasite is “the single-largest investment in state history … a tremendous win for rural Tennessee that will strengthen our workforce for generations.” The truck assembly and battery production plants are projected to directly employ 5,800 Tennesseans.

Blue Oval City is all of that – and a transformational project not only for West Tennesseans but for the advanced energy business community across the state.

We already have large segments of the electric vehicle (EV) industry in the state. The Governor’s office says Tennessee is currently home to nearly 40 percent of the Southeast’s EV manufacturing jobs and investment, with more than $11.9 billion invested by companies in the state’s electric vehicle industry. More than 15,000 electric vehicles are produced in the state each year, ranking Tennessee No. 1 in the Southeast for electric vehicle manufacturing.

I’m not sure that most Tennesseans know that. But the sheer magnitude of Blue Oval City and especially the commitment that Ford – one the most respected global industries on Earth – is making to environmentally friendly manufacturing and transportation based on advanced energy (AE) is the biggest single message, yet that AE is one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the Tennessee and U.S. economies.

And then there’s the critical educational and workforce training aspect of the project, which Tennessee’s community and technical college system is proud to lead – as a major partner with Ford, the battery maker SK Innovation and the State of Tennessee.

A critical component of Blue Oval City is a brand-new Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) to be built on the Ford-SK campus. The General Assembly in October approved Governor Lee’s budget request for $40 million for the public technical college, which will be built, owned and operated by the Tennessee Board of Regents as another College System of Tennessee institution. It will train employees for Blue Oval City but will also be open to anyone to learn the skills they need to start new careers or advance in their existing careers.

As TBR Chancellor, I’m proud to be a member of the Governor’s Blue Oval City working group, and other TBR system staff and TCAT Jackson President Jeff Sisk are also working closely with Ford and the State on the project.

Having participated in TAEBC’s three regional Advanced Energy Business Roundtables in 2021, I’m keenly aware of the Council’s lead role in the AE sector and its interest in education geared toward AE jobs and careers. Therefore, I wanted to answer a few key questions about TBR’s role in Blue Oval City and workforce development for TAEBC readers. Here they are:

Why are workforce development partnerships like this one between Ford, SK Innovation and the new TCAT important for TBR and the state?

These kinds of partnerships, which our colleges excel at, are important because they leverage the resources of both the state and private industry in providing workforce training for Tennesseans. That’s obviously beneficial to Tennesseans because they’re able to learn career and technical skills and the college credentials they need for high-demand and well-paying jobs that can change the trajectory of their families’ lives for generations to come. It’s beneficial to taxpayers because the costs are shared by our industrial partners. It’s beneficial to the state, towns and counties because of the economic development and tax base contributions that a trained workforce provides. Economic development officials say the first question they’re asked by companies looking to expand into the state is whether we have a trained workforce – or the ability to train workers for specific jobs quickly.

And we do. This is not new to us, as evidenced by this partnership and the many others that our colleges are involved in. Our TCAT Murfreesboro Smyrna Campus is also the training for Nissan. Chattanooga State Community College has a major partnership with Volkswagen. At the time of the announcement last September, Governor Lee said, “Our commitment to skilled trades through career and technical education gave Tennessee a clear advantage” in winning the Ford project.

What benefits do direct TCAT workforce development programs like this provide businesses and organizations in the state?

Not only our Colleges of Applied Technology but also our 13 community colleges across the state are all nimble enough that they’re able to work directly with businesses and organizations to create customized workforce training programs and scale them up quickly. We work closely with our partners in industry as well as the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development to address general workforce needs, and the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development to address the needs of new and expanding industries, on the front end – as this Ford/SK Innovation project underscores.

And the graduates of the programs?

The graduates can take the skills they learn and apply them in jobs not only at the partnering industries but elsewhere as well. Programs like Electric Vehicle Technology, Advanced Manufacturing, Robotics, and Industrial Maintenance train skills that are transferrable across industries. And of course, the graduates benefit by the increased economic value they have gained. Our graduates are working at TESLA in California, Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Nissan in Smyrna and Decherd, General Motors in Spring Hill, Toyota Bodine in Jackson – and hundreds of suppliers, inside and outside of Tennessee.

For TBR, what is the value of the advanced energy industry in Tennessee?

The AE industry is of tremendous value for our colleges for several reasons: First, they provide careers for our graduates. Second, they are great partners in helping us establish the curriculums for training programs for the industry, because industry members know their workforce needs. Third, their philanthropy helps provide equipment and scholarships that we need. And finally, we ALL benefit from cleaner, safer, more secure and more efficient energy. And did we mentioned that some of our TCATs – including TCAT Oneida/Huntsville and TCAT Murfreesboro – provide training for electric utility linemen – not only for Tennessee utilities but for utilities across the Southeast.

What are TBR’s hopes for the future of workforce development efforts in the advanced energy industry, particularly for EVs?

We believe the sky is the limit for workforce development efforts in this field – and particularly in EVs – because advanced energy is so obviously where the U.S., indeed, the entire globe, is heading.

What can organizations like TAEBC to do support TBR’s mission of workforce development in the state or how can TAEBC’s mission benefit TBR? Likewise, how can TBR support organizations like TAEBC?

We’re honored that TAEBC invited us to participate in the TAEBC Roundtables last year. We learned more about the industry, its needs, its growth potential and how we can work with its members. And I think industry participants learned more about what we do – and the high-quality training we provide. We can and will do more to create new training programs to meet the industry’s needs and create career pipelines for our graduates. And we hope TAEBC will help spread the word that our community and technical colleges are tremendous and affordable centers for education and career and technical training.

We’ve been saying for years that “our colleges power Tennessee’s economy.” That’s particularly appropriate for our new partnership with TAEBC.

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