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March 19, 2023 | Shannon Smith

PIE Innovation Center is training Bradley County’s next workforce

"I think once we built it and they saw it was happening, they're like, no pun intended, but 'we want a piece of the pie.'"

Imagine being a high school student with access to a mechatronics lab, a recording studio, and construction training that guarantees you a high-paying job after graduation.

That’s what students in Bradley County have access to with the opening of the new Partnerships in Industry and Education Innovation Center, better known as the PIE Innovation Center.

But it’s so much more than just a cool facility in a renovated uniform plant.

The PIE Innovation Center is a planned workforce development center that will allow juniors and seniors enrolled in Bradley County schools as well as Polk County Schools (with plans of expansion to Meigs, McMinn, and North Hamilton County Schools) to receive training in a variety of career fields.

The center collaborates with local businesses, industry, and community partners to provide learning opportunities for both college and career-bound students through a combination of STEM classroom instruction, skill development, and on-the-job training.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but let’s start with the journey to opening the PIE Innovation Center. In 2017, Bradley County Schools received a rare joint grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Education for $4.5 million.

“We were able to really develop partnerships and opportunities for students to be ready for that college or career path, and that truly propelled the PIE Innovation Center,” said Brittany Cannon, Director of the PIE Innovation Center.

The PIE Innovation Center.

Cannon has been involved since day one, first as a high school business teacher in the district and now overseeing the whole center.

She and the many school leaders involved in the project knew there needed to be more tools for students to ensure success after high school.

“I’m working with some students that are at a risk for dropping out,” said Cannon. “But we have been able to place them in areas that they’re passionate about and were able to be creative and work with that academic side. So that is my hope, that is our goal, that we can continue to provide a place for students to find their purpose.”

School staff toured a similar facility in Georgia, and even traveled to Germany with staff from WACKER, a German-based chemical company with a plant in Bradley County, to see its German workforce training model.

To make this work, Bradley County Schools needed a building, and they found that in an old plant in Cleveland, Tennessee.

The Bradley County Commission purchased the 284,000-square-foot building in 2017 because the school district cannot carry debt, and then they got to work.

“A lot of this is possible through grant funding and grants will pay for equipment, programming, all of that,” said Cannon. “Grants will not typically pay for brick-and-mortar. That’s where the ESSER dollars came in.”

ESSER, or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, was government assistance that became available to schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cannon said it’s because of that assistance that the PIE Innovation Center is already open.

So what goes on in there?

“This is a unique facility, in the fact that it houses K-12 students, post-secondary students, nonprofits, businesses, and industry all under one roof,” said Cannon. “And to be part of this facility, you have to agree to work with students in some capacity.”

That’s proven not to be a problem at all for the many companies now calling the PIE Innovation Center home.

The University of Tennessee Agriculture Extension has an office there where students can learn from their experts. The Center for Sports Medicine works with Bradley County athletes and exercise science students. The Boys and Girls Club teaches development to middle schoolers. Some of these companies even employ students.

“Piedmont National is a supply chain and logistics company. They just opened their doors and have hired their first work-based learning students,” said Cannon. “They start at $14 an hour with this company and have a way to keep going.”

“Little Debbie herself has been here and she has donated two trucks,” said Cannon. “So we have two trucks that were retired from their fleet that are here, plus the money she’s given to help build out that medium and heavy truck transportation center.”

Students stand with a donated commercial truck, previously owned and operated by McKee Foods.

There are several areas of study students can choose from, including machining, construction, mechatronics, chemical technology, welding, audio and visual, HVAC, construction, health science, plumbing, and more. There are also business and financial components so students learn how to budget and invest once they start earning money.

“We have 28 programs of study in Bradley County Schools and so we want this center to eventually hit all 28 programs of study,” said Cannon. “We are educators, we’re not experts. So we pulled in these industry partners and we had different teams and different advisories for every single program. They worked with us to develop the curriculum, the overall program, and equipment to make sure what we’re doing is industry aligned.”

Right now, 128 Bradley County juniors and seniors are enrolled in multiple courses each. “We have the potential as we grow to have 415 in the morning and 415 in the afternoon,” said Cannon. “And we provide busing from our high schools because again, we wanted to break all barriers for students.”

And as more industry partners join in, they’re seeing the impact this can have not just for the students, but for the businesses looking to hire local talent.

“It’s wonderful to come in and see CNC machines and plastic machines and automation and welders and everything that we need in this area,” said Derek Kozlowski, Senior Engineering Manager of Asset Reliability Excellence for WACKER.

WACKER recently donated $1 million to the PIE Innovation Center. They’re renaming their multipurpose area ‘WACKER Commons.’

“This is our Field of Dreams. You build it and they will come,” said Cannon. “I think once we built it and they saw it was happening, they’re like, no pun intended, but ‘we want a piece of the pie.'”

If you want to learn more about the PIE Innovation Center and see it yourself, there will be an open house on March 30 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The PIE Innovation Center is located at 2337 Parker St NE, Cleveland, TN 37311.

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