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Nashville Tennessean

By: Katie Nixon

More people are leaving the trades workforce than entering.

For every five retiring tradesmen, only one apprentice is training to fill their position, according to Go Build Tennessee. And a shortage of about 315,000 workers persists across all trades in Tennessee, the nonprofit public awareness organization estimates.

Yet America’s skilled workforce faces more than shortages.

Its manufacturing skills gap could result in 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030, according to a study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers reported in May 2021.

But Tennessee officials are hoping to change these statistics.

Be Pro Be Proud TN, an initiative led by the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, has partnered with other industry leaders to bring the workforce to students through it's mobile workshop.

“For the Tennessee Chamber and (Tennessee) Manufacturers Association, we work to really drive policy in Tennessee to enhance our business climate, and one of the most important issues, especially recently, is workforce … a lack of a skilled workforce, especially in the trades,” said Bradley Jackson, president and CEO of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“We’re always looking at innovative things that we can do to enhance that and really move the needle … we felt like this is a really great opportunity for industry to lead in knowledge and awareness through the mobile workshop about the skilled trades,” Jackson said.

Since its launch on Oct. 12, Be Pro Be Proud TN’s mobile workshop has visited more than two dozen middle and high schools, addressing the workforce gap in skilled trades.

Students are provided hands-on learning opportunities aboard the mobile workshop, focusing on high-paying careers available in industries like automation and robotics, construction, commercial truck driving, welding and more.

And it’s done through a virtual reality headset and heavy machinery simulators.

VR, you ready for this?

Originally launching at Volunteer State Community College in October, the mobile workshop recently returned to Sumner County, where Gallatin High School students were able to tour the virtual reality simulators and learn more about the state’s in-demand trades.

Groups of about 30 students boarded the workshop to gain experience in each of the 12 virtual reality headsets and simulators, including construction scenarios for heat and air, electrical, plumbing and carpentry, welding, utility line workers and operating heavy equipment like a commercial truck, excavator, tractor and more.

Piling onto the floor, students branched off to explore the available careers and encouraged their classmates as they took turns performing different skilled jobs.

Gallatin High junior Bryce Calhoun shared his appreciation for the opportunity the mobile workforce provides students.

“It gives people other opportunities to just see other jobs because everyone thinks maybe college is the way, but there’s so many other trades you can do that don’t take years upon years of school to do,” Calhoun said, noting the life-like attributes of the simulators.

Gallatin senior Noa Demarcus boarded the mobile workshop to test out the lineman virtual reality station, noting how realistic and relevant the information and virtual reality is for students.

“I think it’s great. I know a lot of students have obviously never driven a dozer or an excavator or actually been in a bucket before,” Demarcus said.

“You can get in and drive it and hit stuff and it doesn’t cost anything since it’s a simulation,” he said.

Over 2,500 students have gone through the mobile workshop since Nov. 2.

More than 20,000 students are expected to visit and interact with the mobile workshop annually.

“We work directly with development companies and industry leaders to ensure that the experience the kids are seeing is relevant, is current, is high tech and is really as close to that particular job as possible,” Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chief of Staff Sarah Burnett said.

“They are very realistic and very relevant to the industries.”

Step into a world of pure imagination (and beyond)

Virtual reality immerses students into a trade for a life-like, hands-on experience, Jackson said.

Though virtual reality has been around for some time now, utilizing it to expose students to prospective careers is relatively new.

Be Pro Be Proud TN ambassador Alison Lewis said she’s grateful today’s students have the opportunities her generation did not.

“I feel like when I was growing up, they didn’t have anything like this, if you didn’t know what you wanted to do you just had to fend for yourself,” Lewis said. “It shows them so many different outlets that they can start a career … find their niche, spark their interest if they don’t know what they want to do when they get out of school.”

Lewis and her husband, Be Pro Be Proud TN tour operator Jason Lewis, have been on the bus since its initial launch, helping students across the state find their niche.

The couple came to Tennessee from North Carolina hoping to make a difference.

“We really love it … we want to make a difference with what we do… it makes our day every day,” Lewis said.

They’re able to make that dream a reality through the mobile workshop’s Oculus Quest virtual reality headsets, donated by Meta.

Oh, the places it’ll go

Following its Middle Tennessee launch, the mobile workshop is projected to complete 30 stops across Middle and East Tennessee by the end of the year on its first tour.

Though it hasn’t made it to West Tennessee yet, it plans to do so next year.

The mobile workshop will work to optimize its visits throughout the school year, opening new avenues for students outside of a four-year degree through a partnership with state legislature, higher education and the private sector.

Seeing the concept of virtual reality on wheels succeed in other states like Arkansas, Georgia, New Mexico, North and South Carolina and Texas, officials were excited to bring the mobile workshop to Tennessee students.

“The interactive nature of it was very appealing to us, the fact that it travels across the state, it will go to middle schools and high schools and even in the other states we saw real numbers that helped enhance or increase post-secondary enrollment and really that’s our goal for the trades,” Jackson said.

Officials are even considering making stops at Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology, local fairs and other locations across the state to reach youth.

Three more stops are planned for the Middle Tennessee area at Rutherford County Schools.

The mobile workshop will visit Whitworth Buchanan Middle School in Murfreesboro on Dec. 6-7, Rockvale Middle School in Rockvale on Dec. 12-13 and Rock Springs Middle School in Smyrna on Dec. 14-15. Other stops are planned for the Knoxville area.

Schools can request the mobile workshop to visit their campus at

Where it all began

Be Pro Be Proud TN’s founding council was formed in January 2021. An appropriation was granted by Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly in May 2022.

The mobile workshop’s fabrication and build began in September 2022 and officially launched on Oct. 12 at Volunteer State Community College.

Sumner County served as the platform for the launch of Be Pro Be Proud TN’s mobile workshop for several reasons, none more crucial than its involvement in certified career and technical education career pathways.

In a statement provided on the day of the launch, Sumner County Schools Director Scott Langford expressed pride in the district being chosen as the jumping off point.

“We work hard to equip our kids for the real world and empower them with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. Be Pro Be Proud Tennessee aligns perfectly with our mission to prepare the next generation of professionals.”