Business, Education

Securing Tennessee’s Workforce: The Future is NOW

A New Paradigm for our Business Community and Nine Keys to Success

This piece was originally published in the TBR Member Update on June 23, 2017 

By TBR President Pat Sheehy

How do we get more Tennesseans job- ready in the skill areas of greatest need to our state's economy? In talking with our state's business leaders and allied organizations, I've learned this is the question that keeps many of them up at night. 

I’ve heard great examples of employers investing in their businesses through opportunities for young Tennesseans, and about great efforts by local business nonprofits to inform, encourage and facilitate workforce development.

 Yet those joyful noises are still being drowned out by a growing din of alarm and doubt among employers, economists and workforce experts: “It’s still not enough.” “We can’t find qualified workers.” “Who’s really doing something about this?”

It’s time for employers and our organizations to put it all together for Tennessee. In partnership with educators, governments, and each other, Tennessee businesses and our nonprofits should embrace a new paradigm:

The future of Tennessee’s workforce begins nowFor our businesses, our state, and our peoplewe must take action individually and collectively, and with others,to produce more workers, with better skills, matching our most-needed jobs,now and for the future of Tennessee’s economy.

How do we achieve this vision? Here are nine key ideas that should inform action by Tennessee's business community:

  1. Tomorrow’s employees need active employer support all the way from K to J. As tomorrow’s employees begin journeying from kindergarten to job (“K to J”), companies cannot simply wait at the end of the road for them to arrive—we have to actively help them get there. Our education system provides the “roads” for these “occupational motorists” to travel, but if we want more of them to arrive at our doors sooner and job-ready with the skills we need, business must take an active role in providing guard rails, signage, lighting, maps, and even billboards all along their way. If we don’t, too many of them will continue wandering on unproductive, lifelong “road trips”. 
  1. Career awareness is critical—early, often, and in every way possible. “When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut, ballerina, You-Tuber…” Kids begin forming career impressions at shockingly early ages. Too often, they don’t connect to actual job opportunities. If we want more workers at our doors sooner, job-ready with the skills we need, we must “market” our jobs to them—early, aggressively and often. How? Show and tell—in person or on-screen—in front of classes, student groups, parents, and individual students, as early and often as possible. Show them how our skilled positions will deliver the cash for phones, clothes, and cars. Let them see and feel the satisfaction and confidence that “winning” at work delivers.  
  1. K-12 advisors need business expertise, resources and support. Another emerging reality: The adults in the most critical positions from which to influence K-12 students’ career formation are under incredible strain. Too many of them have too many students to serve, not enough professional development opportunities, and are the “staffer of first resort” when a school needs an adult to stop what they’re doing to fill a need or solve a problem. Businesses can step up and step in to help. How many of your staff can contribute mentorship, talent-management acumen, work-world hacks, or professional development support to lift up advisors in your K-12 communities?  
  1. More future workers are learning by doing. With eyes and minds re-wired by electronic screentime, people now learn more by doing than from listening and reading. When K-12 and college students engage in work-based learning (WBL), they grasp theory through practical execution—to real-world standards. They gain soft skills they can’t get in classrooms, and discover the power of paychecks. When they exit the educational system, the employers from whom they’ve learned are tops on their career agenda—and they contribute more and sooner as permanent hires. The WBL approach delivers better results than “give me somebody who can show up on time and pass a drug test, and we’ll train them”—over and over again.  
  1. Post-secondary instruction needs more direct business support. Accomplished businesspeople have long shared their knowledge as adjunct university professors. But Tennessee’s higher ed students and institutions need much more business acumen to inform and support post-secondary study—especially in disciplines matching the skill areas of greatest workforce need. And it’s needed throughout the higher ed system, especially in the TCAT and community college programs into which TN Promise students have begun to flow in greater numbers--and which are struggling to find enough instructors to teach them.  
  1. When the pie grows bigger, everybody gets more. It’s clear that solving Tennessee’s workforce riddle is going to require mobilizing all of the available talent sources in our state. We need numbers, and can't afford to overlook the talent in people with barriers to employment. There's so much we can do to grow Tennessee's talent pie. We can unlock doors for ex-offenders and help veterans “translate” their MOS’s to the skills required for the jobs we need most. We can support employees who want to “re-Connect” and enable those with physical or mental challenges to participate fully in our workforce.  
  1. Employers must take primary responsibility for making it happen. For too long, business owners have focused comfortably on our operations and customers, expecting our workforce to simply appear when needed—and leaving the heavy lifting to our school districts, governments and charitable nonprofits. How’s that working out for us? Not well enough. Business needs to apply the power of free enterprise in taking charge of our workforce destiny, and accept a primary role in overcoming the inefficiency and lack of resources and coordination which constrain public-sector efforts. If we don’t, our businesses and state economy face growing risks.  
  1. How do we eat an employment "elephant”? One bite at a time. “We can’t possibly turn this around—it’s too big a problem.” Not one of us has enough time, people, or resources to solve our own employment riddle. Larger companies invest in last-mile pipelines for enterprise-critical talent, at great expense. But sustaining Tennessee’s economic success requires each and every cog in our state’s economic engine to include workforce outreach in its business plan—and take meaningful action. Nobody needs to do everything, but each company must do something for Tennessee’s K to J talent pipeline.  
  1. Sustained progress requires the three C’s. Many businesses and organizations are already developing programs that respond to their populations and industry cluster needs. They’ve gotten companies to actively contribute time, treasure and know-how to develop their communities' workforces. These investments are producing results, and they prove that business recognizes it must invest in workforce. Tennessee will win the talent competition when we coordinate such efforts, collaborate to fill in the gaps, and execute our commitments.  

Let’s move from talking and commiserating about our workforce challenges into action on them—so Tennessee’s economy and communities can continue to grow and to provide critical private and public benefits to the Tennesseans who bring it all to life.