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Creating Opportunities: Tennessee's Southeast Regional Skills Center

by Fred D. Baldwin

Photo Gallery
Photo of Southeast Regional Skills Center student

Some people are eager to finish school, but not Houston Jeremiah Graham. Graham, age 29, is already running a profitable business based on what he's learning about heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration at the Southeast Regional Skills Center in Kimball, Tennessee. He knows his instructor "would give me a certificate if I wanted it." His response: "Don't graduate me yet."

Graham's enthusiasm is understandable. Two years ago, he says, he knew nothing about air conditioning. He now expects Jeremiah's Heating and Air, started in January, to net over $35,000 in its first year of operation. "Business is good," he says.

Graham represents one example of how Marion County residents benefit from the presence of a regional skills center offering both academic and vocational courses and a wide range of other family-related and job-related services.

Higher Workforce Standards

Marion County's need for adult educational and training programs became clear in the late 1980s, when the county began to succeed in efforts to attract manufacturing industries to an area whose economy had been based on coal, timber, and agriculture. The first such firm to arrive announced that it would hire only workers who had high school diplomas or GEDs.

"They passed out applications for 70 jobs," says Howell Moss, county executive. "Over 1,000 applicants showed up—lines way out in the road. And over half of them had no diploma."

In 1992 the county seized a chance to buy the center's original building from an owner forced to file for bankruptcy. Demand for courses materialized immediately. "We thought we could start out with just a few people," Moss says. "We were overwhelmed. We had about 300 people." The center's facilities, originally consisting of only seven rooms, have been expanded twice since then, each time with help from the Tennessee Department of Education and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

"We just patched it together," Moss says of the additions. "We didn't put any hallways in because we didn't want to waste space. If you want to go from one classroom to another, you have to go outside. We won't win any architectural awards. We just want to train our people."

A Wide Range of Programs

The center does that and more.

It serves as a branch site of the Chattanooga State Technical Community College (CSTCC), which leases most of the space for courses. CSTCC students can complete all course requirements toward a two-year associate of science degree at the center, except for laboratory work in the natural sciences, which requires access to equipment available at the Chattanooga main campus 30 miles to the east. Students can also train for licensing in either cosmetology or in air conditioning and refrigeration.

The center also houses GED preparation classes—since 1996 more than 1,900 Marion County residents have been assisted in preparing for GED exams, and 350 have passed the tests—and provides space for a Families First program, which is actually a cluster of services. Last year, 159 adults attended parenting classes, and 337 others received some form of help with other parenting and family issues, such as drug abuse prevention. Sherry Summers, who directs these programs, notes that they're sponsored by the Marion County public school system, but that the center provides an ideal, non-threatening environment for parenting classes.

"If I were in a school setting," Summers says, "a lot of my clients would not come. I see people whose children have been expelled, and they look at the central school office as their enemy. Here I am their friend."

Similarly, a job placement program involves help with almost anything job-related, such as matching employers and applicants or merely helping a job seeker find out what opportunities are available. Michele Turner, who directs this program, says that last year she provided information or assistance to 400 individuals, about 200 of whom received a personalized service, like coaching for an interview. She estimates that this has resulted in about 100 job placements over the past year.

"The range of services is a real plus to this site," Randall Brown, the center's adult education supervisor, sums up. "If somebody comes to us for a GED class, we modify class times around what's best for the people involved. The real beauty of it is that once they complete a GED, I can take them down the hall and say, 'Here's Chattanooga State. If you want to continue your education, here's your opportunity.' "

Hands-On Training Pays Off

The newest addition to the center facilities houses the air conditioning and refrigeration program from which Houston Jeremiah Graham is reluctant to graduate. It shows how access to a demand-driven training program, taught by a talented instructor, creates dramatic opportunities for residents of small communities.

The program's working laboratory is about 2,500 square feet and is filled with many different models, mostly used, of air conditioners and other devices. Instructor David Guinn uses them to teach students how to diagnose and repair the kinds of equipment they'll encounter on real-world jobs. He actively solicits equipment that would otherwise be junked, knowing that his beginning students will burn out a few motors before they learn how to wire complex equipment correctly.

"It's like medical students have to have cadavers to work on," Guinn says. "You don't want them learning on a live person. These are my cadavers, so to speak. I've got a little of everything—ice cream makers, Coke machines, and air conditioners. Anything that's got to do with refrigeration or air conditioning."

Guinn's courses opened only in 1998, but 22 students have already graduated, with three more expected to do so in December. Most begin work at around $9 an hour and, after brief on-the-job apprenticeships, jump quickly to $15 to $16 per hour. Guinn has students making $25 an hour only two years after graduation. He says that about 25 percent of his students also have or want to learn the skills they'll need to run businesses of their own, and for these, there'll be no effective limit on potential income. "I tell them," Guinn says, "that if they're willing to work, they'll have only two choices. They can make a good, middle-income living. Or they can get rich."

Making anyone rich, of course, was far from the minds of Marion County leaders when they first opened the Southeast Regional Skills Center. Even now they tend to play down its direct economic benefits.

"We didn't do it just to bring money into the town," says Jere Davis, Kimball's mayor, whose city has contributed substantially toward the acquisition and expansion of the center, "but to give our kids a chance for education without their having to go to Chattanooga."

Brown adds that demand for the center's programs is once again stretching its physical facilities to their limits. He and other Marion County leaders are hoping to be able to add more space for classes in basic electrical work, which Guinn points out really should precede his heating and air conditioning class.

At least one of the center's graduates—more precisely, a near-graduate—hopes it continues to expand. Houston Jeremiah Graham originally enrolled in Guinn's classes because he saw them as his best chance to avoid leaving Marion County. Now he expects he'll soon have more work than he can do alone and will need a supply of reliable, well-trained workers. He expects to find them close to home.

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.