By Scott Robertson
One good thing about Tennessee’s state government: its leaders understand the need to grow the economy. They also understand that jobs and prosperity come from a thriving private sector – one that is supported, not hindered, by government. That’s why I was honored recently to be given the opportunity to serve on an advisory board for Northeast Tennessee’s Pathways Tennessee effort.
Pathways Tennessee dovetails with Governor Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 Initiative. It is designed to bring education and business together with the goal of creating more job opportunities for Tennesseans by building a better workforce for businesses.
One of the things I most appreciate about Pathways is that it does not attempt to enforce a top-down, uniform mandate onto each community and region in our 95-county-wide state. Rather, it asks regions to examine and then find ways to maximize the opportunities that already exist – or are on the way – in their own communities. In Northeast Tennessee, for instance, it makes sense for educators to consider the needs of advanced manufacturing concerns and medical services businesses more strongly than those of, say, information technology businesses. The opposite may hold true in the regions surrounding Oak Ridge, Jackson or Tullahoma.
In Northeast Tennessee, Pathways is headed up by Lottie Ryans, formerly a longtime CenturyLink executive now working under the umbrella of the First Tennessee Development District. In this eight-county district, there are 30 high schools, each with its own Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. Those CTE programs are a major part of what will drive Tennessee’s workforce to greater employability, and thus prosperity, if such a movement is to occur.
CTE programs are targeted at the student who is not likely to attend a four-year college or university. As the global economy drives local market changes, those students are finding themselves less and less capable of finding high-paying jobs without first attaining some level of post-secondary (beyond high school) education. Pathways is designed to make sure the institutions of education – from middle schools through high schools through centers for applied technology through community colleges – are communicating effectively with the businesses in the region to ensure the students who emerge from education into the workforce have the skills needed to compete for the specific high-paying jobs and careers that will be needed and offered by those businesses.
You see, it does very little good for the students or the businesses if both sides aren’t part of the bargain. Pathways provides a framework for both sides to spell out specifically what each is asking from the other and how each side will benefit the other.
Businesses want employees who can prove they have the ability to help the business grow. In many cases, that ability is demonstrated by credentials attained through post-secondary work, be it through two-year degrees or six-week training sessions leading to a attainment of a certificate. But educators need to know precisely what credentials the businesses and industries in the region are looking for in order to offer students the educational opportunities they’ll need. Frankly, hundreds of high school CTE directors and thousands of businesspeople don’t have the time or the opportunity to hold those discussions on a regular basis.
That’s where Pathways comes in. Pathways is working on what the bureaucrats refer to as “vertical integration.” That’s bureacraspeak for “making sure both sides get what they need out of this, from as early as the seventh grade through entry into the workforce.”
The state government is committed to this proposition. At the Pathways Summit last week in Nashville, more than 150 representatives of both industry and education from Memphis to Mountain City heard from not only the Education Department, but also the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Department of Economic and Community Development about the specifics of their departments’ commitment to aid in the process.
This isn’t just about creating employees with the minimum skills needed to pay the bills. This is about preparing employees for better-paying, high-growth sector jobs. This is about bringing higher-paying jobs in from out of state.
Two things are happening in the job market in America right now: the number of low-paying, low-skill manufacturing jobs is dwindling while the number of higher-paying jobs that require some level of post-secondary training is actually growing. Tennessee needs to make sure we are a place where employers want to do business, so our people can be where the good jobs are. To do that, our people need to be ready to do those jobs. It’s a simple business proposition, but one we can’t afford to ignore.