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Jon Fletcher, training coordinator at Great Dane Trailers’ Huntsville manufacturing plant, greets Tennessee Governor Bill Lee at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology Oneida-Huntsville campus on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 | Ben Garrett/IH

HUNTSVILLE — The first thing Tennessee Governor Bill Lee did, after being introduced by Tennessee College of Applied Technology Oneida-Huntsville President Dwight Murphy, was ditch the microphone that had been provided for him, insisting that he would “talk loud” instead for the group assembled inside TCAT’s auto repair classroom to hear him speak.

The second thing he did was cast aside some of the chairs that had been set out for the most important among the group, saying they made him feel separated from his audience.

And then the first-term governor spoke passionately about his dedication to technical education in the Volunteer State.

Lee, a non-traditional politician who made rural Tennessee and vocational education key platform components in his outsider’s bid to succeed former Governor Bill Haslam in 2018, lived up to his promise on both accounts as he visited the TCAT campus to deliver $1 million in grant funds.

Inside the facility, Lee insisted on delivering his remarks in a classroom setting instead of in the more formal conference room. He spent more time talking to the dual-enrollment high school students and adult learners at TCAT than to the officials who were on hand to greet him. And he spent more time touring the campus — speaking to each instructor, watching students perform hands-on learning in the welding, machine tool technology and auto repair areas — than he did speaking to the assembled audience.

When he did speak, Lee pointed out that he spent 35 years in the heating and air and plumbing business before his foray into politics. As president and CEO of Lee Company, his family’s home-services company, Lee employed thousands of blue-collar workers from 1992 until 2016. Himself a college graduate — he holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Auburn University — Lee spoke of his admiration for those workers who pursued a technical certification.

TCAT Oneida-Huntsville President Dwight Murphy presents Tennessee Governor Bill Lee with a framed photo taken by the late U.S. Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., during the governor’s visit to the TCAT campus on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 | Ben Garrett/IH

“There are folks whose brains work a certain way and the way their hands connect with their brains is unique, and not everybody has that skill,” he said.

The problem, Lee said, is that the education system has unintentionally come up short when it comes to preparing workers for those technical vocations — such as welding, plumbing and electrical work.

“I knew if I ever got to be governor, I was going to change the way high schools work,” he said. “Not take them in a different direction, but add to what they’re already doing.”

That was the purpose of Lee’s visit to Huntsville: to present TCAT with $1 million in funding that will help the vocational center expand its program offerings in Scott, Morgan and Fentress counties. It’s the second major grant received by TCAT in a span of just months. In late 2018, the center received more than $1.5 million as part of a broad partnership across two states.

Among the officials on hand for last week’s presentation were Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals, Morgan County Executive Brian Langley and Fentress County Executive Jimmy Johnson, as well as education officials for school districts in all three counties — including Scott County Director of Schools Bill Hall and Oneida Special School District Director of Schools Dr. Jeanny Phillips.

Lee said that 25 grants were awarded like the one he was delivering to Huntsville, and were being given to “programs that are doing it right.”

“You all should be proud of this program because a whole lot of people applied for this grant and not everybody got one,” the governor said. 

Lee spoke of the need for expanding technical education in Tennessee. And then he spoke directly to students.

TCAT student Chris Smith demonstrates the workings of a tooling machine to Tennessee Governor Bill Lee during the governor’s visit to the TCAT campus in Huntsville on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 | Ben Garrett/IH

“We need you,” he said. “We need you to expand our workforce. We need skilled young people to develop the workforce in Tennessee.”

He also encouraged students to stay at home rather than taking their skills and certifications elsewhere.

“Stay in your community if you can,” Lee said. “Start your own business. Engage with the businesses that are here. Work for local companies.”