$12M in grants to fund Bartlett TCAT campus and hiring project

tcat-memphis-logoEditor’s note: Also see the shorter sidebar article that is a companion to this story, “Local medical device companies have $2.66 billion impact.”

Funding zoomed from zero to $12 million within one week to boost training and otherwise support the regional medical device manufacturing sector. Bartlett is at the epicenter of the growth.

As part of that funding, a $4 million grant announced Nov. 16 means that Bartlett is getting a satellite campus of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology-Memphis. No time line or location has been announced yet.

The campus will support a new medical device institute. focused on developing journey worker machinists and people with other key skill sets who are needed to support the growth of the area’s 47+ medical device companies.

This funding comes from a grant related to Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive campaign. which has the goal of equipping 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 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 employees who are ready to step into their roles, Norris explained. “This new campus will let us extend this pipeline to prosperity.”

John Threadgill, BACC president, said an advisory board is being formed to ensure swift action in making the institute a reality.

The next huge funding leap came on Nov. 17, when the BACC learned that the Department of Labor approved a $6 million grant. The Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce worked with a team of more than 10 partnering entities on the application.

These funds will enable the greater Memphis community to provide education, training, support services and job placement assistance for more than 1,000 adults to meet the demand for jobs in the regional medical device manufacturing sector. The MOVE-HIRE project — an acronym for Medical device Occupations Value Education and Help In the Regional Economy — will focus on low-income and under-represented individuals over a four-year period and will address the lack of skilled medical device workers in the Memphis area.

In addition to the $4 million and $6 million funds, Threadgill said there is a $1 million Gene Haas Foundation grant and the City of Bartlett’s pledge of $1 million (possibly an in-kind contribution) to make the institute a reality.

“Needless to say the GMMDC Board of Directors, which has been extremely patient for over two years, is ecstatic,” Threadgill said.

Roy Smith, GMMDC executive director, echoed that sentiment. The industry has been searching for a solution to the scarcity of skilled workers since the early 1990s. He said a medical device manufacturing institute will draw workers, and those trained workers will feed existing companies and draw in new ones.

“It employs a lot of people, and the opportunity to grow that is big,” he said.

In the past, the lack of a large pool of skilled workers discouraged one company from even considering the Memphis area for a facility that would have brought 300 jobs, Smith said.

This new influx of funding is revolutionary.

Chris Locke, Saint Francis Hospital Bartlett chief executive officer, said, “This is a huge win for Bartlett. It puts us on the map for developing the workforce to support the growing medical device industry in this area. It should result in more jobs, economic growth, and the enhancement of Bartlett’s reputation in the healthcare industry.”

Norris commented, “Shelby County is home to more medical device manufacturers and suppliers than almost any county in the United States.”

He said 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 on Nov. 16. “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.

Bartlett high teacher Jonathan Easley operates the new machine tool technology lab and said he’s very excited about the new TCAT campus development.

“With grants available through the state, they can come out with certification and have a vocation that they can make a very solid middle-class living with and never incur any debt,” he said. “And they can stay in the community and stay in the tax base.”

He came out of industry himself and said technical education has gotten a black eye as a “less than” career. But the skilled labor and tech market can actually pay the same as the average four-year college grad makes. He encourages those who want those degrees to seek them, but others who are okay with math, good with their hands and intuitively grasp spatial relationships can easily work their way into six-figure-plus jobs, he said.

The Bartlett High lab is still in the “getting up and running” stage, and his students are still working on the preliminary academics. He expects them to get into the lab soon.

Bartlett City Schools Superintendent David Stephens also commented, “I am excited regarding the opportunity the new TCAT institute will afford our students who are in the TCAT dual enrollment program at Bartlett High School. This new location will allow our students to continue their education locally, providing additional opportunities for our students to pursue a career in the field of manufacturing.”

What are the next steps?

Aside from the new TCAT campus coming to Bartlett, Smith said he also expects to get approval for a machinists’ apprenticeship program, recently filed with the Department of Labor.

As for the pending Bartlett campus, 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.”

Written by Carolyn Bahm, Express editor. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to bartlett.editor@journalinc.com.