Big news for education and industry in the Mid-South: A $4 million grant announced Wednesday means that Bartlett is getting a satellite campus of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology-Memphis. The campus will support a new medical device institute.
The funding comes from a Drive to 55 Capacity Fund Grant. The goal of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 campaign is to equip at least 55 percent of the state’s students with a college degree or certificate by 2025.
Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville) has been working toward this grant for more than a year, working in concert with the Greater Memphis Medical Device Council, the city of Bartlett and the Bartlett Area Chamber of Commerce. He said Wednesday that this TCAT expansion is a huge step to close the skills gap in the industry.
As the current work force ages and retires, the Mid-South must be hard at work to train new employes who are ready to step into their roles, he explained. “This new campus will let us extend this pipeline to prosperity.”
This new investment in education also highlights Shelby County’s role as an industry trailblazer.
“Shelby County is home to more medical device manufacturers and suppliers than almost any county in the United States,” Norris said.
He noted that the medical device industry is Tennessee’s largest exporter, responsible for 17,000 local jobs. It contributes $2.6 billion to the economy and some $46 million in annual revenues to state and local governments.
“It is incumbent on us to help ensure that the medical device industry remains a vital part of Tennessee’s economy,” Norris said. “A ready, skilled workforce is essential, and this grant is significant.”
While the grant news itself is a major victory to be savored, Bartlett Mayor A. Keith McDonald also has a special place in his heart for what the local TCAT campus will mean for the area’s employment.
“I’m even more excited about the opportunity for adults in Bartlett and the Bartlett area who are under-employed being able to get training through some of the education initiatives now,” he said Wednesday night. “Many people will be able to get the additional education they need and not have to pay anything out of pocket.”
He explained that the governor’s Drive to 55 program helps people who don’t have a college degree get educated through a TCAT or community college. “It’s not just kids coming out of high school,” McDonald said. “There’s also some money in the Drive to 55 money for adults.”
Students in their late teens and early 20s also can reap benefits. He said those trained at Bartlett High could go to the TCAT facility and be trained even further so they are ready for even more technical jobs that pay better.
Starting jobs are likely to be in the $20-$25 per hour range for workers with the right skill sets. Those who get even more highly educated in medical device manufacturing could find themselves making $75,000 a year and have no college debt, McDonald said.
How leaders worked toward this goal
Driving toward the goal of this TCAT expansion began with the GMMDC (created in 2014), Norris said. He spoke with the organization in October 2015 as the grant process gathered momentum.
He also pointed to the huge leap that Bartlett High School took earlier this fall to get students as young as high-school age deeply interested in the medical device career track: The school invested about $400,000 in a brand-new machine tool technology lab, unveiled Oct. 17. The funding came from TCAT, the Tennessee Board of Regents and a state bill that recently passed.
The $4 million grant for the Bartlett TCAT campus will be added to a $1 million Gene Haas Foundation grant also announced recently, getting the project off to a good start.
Michael Garner, Vice President of the Hass Factory Outlet for the Southeast region, said, “The Gene Haas Medical Device Institute will be a model program for helping local manufacturers recruit talent that ensures their competitiveness in the industry.”
The GMMDC, which represents 45 Shelby county medical device companies, is playing a leading role in shaping the curriculum and design of the proposed institute.
TCAT Memphis currently has an 85 percent completion rate and an 81 percent placement rate.
What are the next steps?
It’s too early for a construction timetable or other project details to be announced, and the facility does not yet have a designated site.
McDonald said that the city originally had a site in mind, but it sold while the grant process was underway. He said the city will be looking at other facilities and negotiating.
Norris said he hopes Bartlett will invest in the institute, and McDonald said the city’s leaders have discussed that. One possibility under consideration would be for the city to purchase a facility and lease it out to TCAT with some sort of lease-purchase arrangement.
Of course, it’s still early days to speak out specifics.
McDonald said, “There’s a lot still up in the air. It would require a budget amendment and need to be vetted with our aldermen.”
How the pieces fit together
If you think in terms of a one-two punch, the Bartlett High School tech lab was the first big hit in the region’s drive to support a thriving medical device manufacturing industry. This grant, and the Bartlett campus that follows it, will be the “two” punch.
“I just think it opens so many more additional doors for us,” McDonald said. “We have a great cluster of medical device companies here already. What they need are people who are trained and ready to go to work on their equipment. And as an area, we’ve got to to a better job of getting people ready for that, so we can provide them with the trained, ready-to-work employees that they need.”
The institute will support numerous career paths within the medical device sector, as well as support other advanced manufacturing operations. Programs targeting machining, industrial maintenance and welding have been identified as needed skills that are in high demand by the private sector.
McDonald also has an eye toward the city’s future economic growth. “If we’re successful, as I expect we will be, that will just draw more of these types of businesses here.”
Editor’s note: Because of the late-breaking timing of the announcement today (Nov. 16), not all of the movers and shakers in this project were immediately available for comment. We will update as more information becomes available.