TCAT is on the brink of expansion that will provide job skills training to Hamblen and surrounding counties for decades – meet one of its unsung heroes.
Nearly five years into the job, Chris Edmonds, Business and Industry Coordinator with TCAT Morristown, has achieved ‘million dollar man’ status among his peers, a circumstance of which, until recently, he was unaware.
Edmonds’ preference to remain in the background of the area’s workforce development is attributable to his tight schedule of day-to-day objectives rather than any feigned humbleness. He is acutely aware of the role that TCAT plays in the dollars-for-training hustle that is preparing to open the doors for new industry, including international powerhouse Van Hool.
“It’s just a blur. We are two leap grants in (LEAP and LEAP 2.0) and now we’re headed into the GIVE grant,” he said.
In November, TCAT Morristown was announced as the recipient of $1 million in Gov. Bill Lee’s GIVE funds.
“We’ve got so much going on. Everything has such an impact on our community. It’s just exciting,” Edmonds said. “We’re in such a good place here at the school right now. It’s a good place to be. You do get tired, but what we do is so important. I can’t wait to get to school in the morning,” Edmonds.
The role includes international travel, more than 11,000 miles relating to Van Hool, the Belgian bus maker, anticipated to eventually offer upwards of 1,000 jobs to the seven counties served by TCAT Morristown. A recent trip included Van Hool facilities in Skopje, Macedonia and Lier, Belgium. Prior international trips have included locations in Japan, where he assessed training needs for Nakatetsu Machining Technologies, locating in Telford, Tennessee (2007, 2008). He’s traveled across the U.S. as well, with teams from the Tennessee Board of Regents and the state’s department of economic and community development.
“The most exciting thing about traveling to other counties is experiencing different cultures. Learning about the history and customs fascinates me,” Edmonds said. “The cathedrals are a favorite. I was fortunate to be able to visit the St. Michael Cathedral in Brussels on the Van Hool trip. Construction began on the cathedral in the 13th century and was completed about 300 years later.
“The architecture in Belgium so beautiful. We think a 100-year-old building here is old, but the buildings there from the 15th and 16th century are common. Our hotel in Brussels was a short walk from the Grand Place which is like the old center of town. The Town hall is in this square. The architecture here was unbelievably beautiful. It looked like a postcard.”
Edmonds said by far, the best part of traveling is the food, but there was something in Belgium that got his blood pumping regarding the future of local job skills training.
“Seeing firsthand how a Van Hool bus is manufactured was remarkable. Each coach is a work of art, totally hand crafted,” he said.
Edmonds’ success has been supported by his family, which includes his wife of 28 years, Christy, and their daughter, Emily, now a senior at East Tennessee State University, where she will graduate in May with a business degree in marketing management and logistics.
The support extends to his hobby – Edmonds refers to himself a lifelong collector and junk-a-holic.
“I started collecting when I was about eleven years old. I have a real passion for local history. I look for paper items such as old letterheads and invoices from businesses, postcards, bottles, and advertising items, basically anything that tells the story about what life was like here in East Tennessee in the old days. I also have an interest in military history, especially World War I and II,” he said.
“I am a very amateur genealogist. I have done a quite a bit of research on my family history and it plays into my collecting habit. I think it is very important to learn as much as possible about your roots and to preserver and pass one’s family history and heirlooms on the next generation,” Edmonds said.
Speaking of history, Edmonds is actually a graduate of TCAT.
“I enrolled in the Machine Shop Program in October 1989. Back then we were called the State Area Vocational and Technical School. The next October I went to went to work as a Class C Toolmaker at Howmet which is now Arconic. I worked there for almost four years and then had the opportunity for advancement with a company in Sevierville, Cooper Automotive. I worked there for a year and then, through a very random set of circumstances, I learned about an opening at the school for an instructor position. I was hired to replace the first Machine Shop instructor bill Miller who had just retired. That was 1995. I spent almost 20 years as an instructor. In 2015, I transitioned to my current role as Business and Industry Coordinator to manage the first LEAP Grant.
So … how random were those circumstances that led to employment at TCAT?
“I was working in Sevierville at the time and was looking for a 1986-87 Chevrolet pickup truck. I had picked up a Smoky Mountain Trader paper and saw an ad for a Machine Shop instructor. The ad only said Morristown. So I came by the school to ask Dave Nelson, Dave was one of three Machine Shop instructors at the time, if he knew anything about the position and who was hiring. I soon learned the position was there at the school and that day was the last day to apply.”
What is the favorite, or most challenging, aspect of working as the business and industry coordinator?
“Serving others. When someone from one of our regional companies call it usually revolves around some kind of need. They need an employee or are having an issue that requires training,” Edmonds said.
The ‘million dollar man’ title ranks a deep dive into the GIVE process.
According to Roni Snyder (see her WINK story), Edmonds achieved a rare milestone by coordinating tours of manufacturing facilities by dozens of regional school administrators.
Edmonds said the GIVE application process shined a spotlight on TCAT’s industry partners’ contention that there is an overall lack of knowledge of current manufacturing by area schools principals.
“It’s not their fault; they just don’t have the exposure,” Edmonds said.
After Edmonds worked his magic, school system directors agreed to send every principal in their district to willing companies. The first round was completed in November, with a little over half of the principals in eight school systems participating: Cocke Greene (and Greeneville City Schools) Grainger, Hamblen, Hancock, Hawkins and Jefferson counties.
GIVE partner companies include ABB, Arconic, Burke-Ailey, Clayton Homes, Colortech, Cooper Standard, Huf North America, Iatric Manufacturing, Iconex, JTEKT, Kawasaki Tennessee, Kiefer Manufacturing, MAHLE, Meritor, Oskosh Manufacturing, Overman International, Parker Hannifin, Renold Jeffrey, Rich Products, Team Technologies, Tuff Torq, Van Hool and ZF Active Safety and Electronics.
A facet of the GIVE grant, the Five Rivers Partnership for Future Ready Pathways program, will focusing on expanding dual enrollment programs opportunities, industry certification attainment, advanced manufacturing training capabilities and work-based learning experiences; increasing secondary educator awareness of career opportunities in manufacturing, along with public awareness; increasing career and technical education of under-represented populations and expanding the work ethic diploma.
The complicated nature of the GIVE program was addressed in typical Edmonds fashion: hit early, hit fast and listen carefully.
“I started my meetings before the RFP (request for proposal) came out of Nashville. I always like to stay ahead of whatever’s coming. We circled the wagons and started our prep work,” he said.
“I had a good idea of the direction of the grant’s focus. We established our partners. We’re continuing and expanding LEAP – GIVE is the next generation. Gov. Lee is focused on rural and distressed counties. Two of our counties are distressed, Hancock and Cocke, almost one-quarter of the grant is focused on those two, as far as dollar amounts,” Edmonds said.
Discussions in the first meeting included industries, 23 of which signed on to do specific things during the 30-month duration of the grant. After the meeting, Edmonds sent out a survey that helped him set the grant priorities.
“We’ve got excellent partners, everyone is on the same page,” he said.
The real magic in Edmonds’ approach involves big ears.
“Listening to people’s needs. That’s the way I operate, trying to provide a solid plan to meet those needs. Then implement. We do not go out on our own. Industry partners need to be at the table, part of the process - they will be a part of it all the way through,” he said.
Why is TCAT so hot right now?
“TCAT is the regional hub for technical education. We are very, very much involved in the high schools now and creating that pipeline of high schools-to TCAT-to work. LEAP was a catalyst for that to happen, and GIVE is another push to provide more resources in that pipeline for our industries,” Edmonds said.
The goals of TCAT mirror those of its staff, according to Edmonds.
“My philosophy, my entire being, is that TCAT is here for one purpose – we are servants of the community. We serve business and industry; when industry calls with a need, that’s the most important thing at the moment. They are the only thing I’ve got going. You do whatever it takes. Be a good servant. That’s relationship building,” he said.
“When we call a meeting, we have a purpose — being respectful to my industry partners, then, they in turn are there when things like these kinds of opportunities come; they are more than willing to come to the table. We work so well together. Other folks across the state are very envious. There is no one person who is hunting the limelight. Everyone is focused.”
Edmonds said the teamwork mantra reaches across all local entities.
“The city and county mayors, the Chamber, the industrial boards, everyone is focused on what is best. You can accomplish a lot when you have such a strong team. In fact, we have what I consider to be the strongest team – I’ll put our team up against anybody in the state. It’s a very dedicated group.”
Edmonds ability to communicate effectively comes from a place of authenticity.
“This is what we do; this is what we live. We believe in what we’re doing. It’s easy to speak about what you know, if you are invested in it. People here realize that Hamblen County is very strong; it’s a hub for that reason. But it takes the other counties to make it all work.
The Hamblen County workforce comes from the surrounding counties. People here realize that.
A regional approach means the logistics of the GIVE program are focused on reaching across county lines.
“It’s very important, with what’s going on with the school systems and how we’re approaching technical education here, that we take it to the other counties. There’s a multitude of opportunities throughout the region,” Edmonds said.
the GAME CHANGER
Van Hool is going to change the landscape here for decades. That may very well be the biggest project that any of us work on. The sheer volume of it — landing Van Hool is just like Chattanooga landing Volkswagen. To be a part of that from the ground up, even before they decided that Tennessee was going to be their home, has been incredible,” Edmonds said.
During a presentation at the 2018 Governor’s Conference held in Nashville, representatives from Van Hool praised TCAT and credited their decision to locate in Morristown in part to impromptu conversations with students during an onsite visit.
State officials normally carefully orchestrate such visits, but during that particular tour, the Van Hools ‘went rogue’ and approached students who were not at all prepared, but represented the school with authenticity and a zeal for the work skills training offered there.
“The student were great,” Edmonds said. “I had never been involved with a site visit like that.”
There were three Van Hool visits to the school in total. Edmonds also went to Nashville once.
“It was all pretty stressful,” Edmonds said. “There was such an impact on the line. You’re talking about improving the life of the region, decades of prosperity and building livelihoods for families. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the impact of something like that.”
“Van Hool is definitely part of our expansion,” Edmonds said. “We will be doing a lot of their initial training for their new employees. Right now, it looks like it will be focused on welding and paint and body work. Our tech expansion really can’t come fast enough. OshKosh located in the area last year – the demand for welders has dramatically increased.”
TCAT Morristown has partnered with regional high schools, Grainger, Hancock, Hamblen and Jefferson counties that will facilitate dual enrollment welding. The school is planning to have around 48 welding stations.
“We are going to double down on our capacity to provide welders for the region,” Edmonds said.