By Jared Felkins
Tennessee Business Roundtable
Tennessee Business Roundtable member companies and executives were featured prominently at the Future Forward Summit, held Sept. 6 at the W Hotel in Nashville and presented by nonprofit Roundtable member State Collaborative On Reforming Education (SCORE).
More than 200 of Tennessee’s top business and education leaders gathered to discuss ways to create and expand career pathways to improve educational and workforce outcomes for both students and employers. Roundtable members stood out as innovators throughout the Summit.
“Today, we live in a Tennessee that, as we all know, is ever changing – ever changing in so many ways,” said Dr. Bill Frist, SCORE founder and board chairman. “Our economy continues to grow and to thrive, and companies continue to love to come to Tennessee to operate. But what brings us together is that we have a big problem, a big challenge, and that challenge is a talent problem. Estimates show that for every 100 jobs in Tennessee, we have just 56 workers, and that's a talent gap. It creates a sense of urgency. We've got to prepare today's students and make sure that they're adequately prepared for today's workforce needs.”
The Summit spotlighted current innovations at the intersection of education and work, elevated the work of leading Tennessee and national best practices and identified opportunities so that every Tennessean is prepared for a career that enables economic independence.
“Every Tennessee student deserves an educational experience that prepares them for a successful career,” SCORE President and CEO David Mansouri said. “Innovative business and industry leaders have a critical role to play in reimagining education-to-workforce pathways for students to meet our state’s economic needs. [The Summit] helps to elevate leading efforts that provide more students with credentials and degrees that have strong value in the workplace.”
Mansouri told attendees that more than 200,000 jobs are available across Tennessee currently, and that number is expected to increase in the coming years. However, fewer than a fourth of Tennessee high school students will get a postsecondary degree or credential, while employers require one to fill a majority of available jobs.
“I often hear from Tennessee business leaders, ‘We can’t find the skilled workers that we need,’” said Roundtable President Pat Sheehy, prerecorded in a video presented during the Summit program. “My response? We build them through intentional partnerships with higher education and K-12 institutions. When employers reach out and clearly communicate their workforce needs to educators, it works, and everybody wins.”
Two Roundtable members at opposite ends of Tennessee are already doing this work, and both were featured during the Summit.
Chattanooga: BlueSky Tennessee Institute
Developed through a partnership between Roundtable member company BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and East Tennessee State University, the BlueSky Tennessee Institute is a two-year bachelor’s degree in computing program built from scratch that costs nothing for students and includes a high-paying job with BlueCross BlueShield at completion.
“It was built around our own cybersecurity needs, our own software programming needs,” said BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee CEO J.D. Hickey. “It's not a traditional school model for students who are essentially at work from 9 to 5 on a daily basis. The campus was specially built. The facility is specially built. It is embedded on our campus. The idea is that they are using and working on our tools, our platforms, and they're working side by side with our IT experts. And on the back end is a guaranteed job that starts at $65,000 a year, with no loans and no commitments for those students who want to stay with us. We're currently at 60 students in our first two years of startup.”
Hickey said BlueSky is currently recruiting Hamilton County Schools graduates, who are near BlueCross BlueShield’s campus in Chattanooga.
“Any student with sufficient exposure with a threshold level of interest should be able to thrive in these jobs,” Hickey said. “And make no doubt about it, these are our best jobs… This is very much open source. Any other large employers who want to come and learn from our experience, please come.”
Memphis: Teacher Externship Program
Roundtable member Greater Memphis Chamber’s Teacher Externship Program embeds high school teachers in businesses to promote a greater understanding of high-demand skills and jobs available to their students. Chamber CEO Ted Townsend presented information on the program, along with other valuable insights on how to bridge the gap between the classroom and the workforce.
Townsend said the chamber started its Teacher Externship Program about a year ago with more than 100 teachers who applied, but only four companies that participated.
“That's not a great classroom ratio, is it? And these are paid externships,” he said. “So, they went over their summer for eight days, and they went into these employers. They went into companies inside industries like construction and biosciences and manufacturing to learn more about what it takes to work there. We had teachers from five school districts that were placed inside these industries.”
This year, Townsend said 20 employers got involved and made the program much more robust.
“We actually had to turn two down, because here's the one moment perhaps that businesses did not move at the speed of education,” he said. “No single role can reach as many people about the potential of a career pathway than a teacher. They'll run circles around recruiters all day long and some companies make recruiters a lot of money to find that talent, right?”
What We Must Do: 3 Key Practices for Tennessee Business
Townsend outlined three practices that he recommends Tennessee businesses should adopt in seeking to grow their workforce development strategies.
“Number one, stop talking about workforce development and economic development like they're separate things," Townsend said. "They're the same thing. They have to be the same thing. You cannot extricate workforce development from economic development. In fact, it's probably the most potent, strategic, competitive advantage that you can do as an economic developer to have a sound workforce development strategy.”
Townsend said representatives of companies considering expansion to Memphis often ask about help to facilitate workforce development. He said they ask about career technical education programs, equipment used in college and university classrooms for training and other relatable questions.
“They want the granular detail about what you're going to do to mitigate the risk of their investment,” Townsend said. “And that's why a member of our workforce team is in every single one of those sessions. They're in the room contributing and talking to them about what our strategies are. Our team member has to lean into those relationships with our educational partners. And those of you who are educators in the room, guess what? You're economic developers. You have to lean into those relationships with your economic development teams in your regions.”
Townsend’s second recommendation is for the business community to actively support investments in teachers.
“The only professional that sees your future workforce five days a week for 36 weeks in a year is a classroom teacher,” he said. “Think about that. They are the front line of economic development and workforce development. And you know what? Students and parents are always looking to that teacher. They're looking to them for guidance as they start to think about their coursework and their future careers. And if the classroom teacher doesn't understand the career pathways, certainly within your region, it can't help our future workforce understand them better either.”
Townsend’s third recommendation is for the business community to “lead from the front.” He offered four examples of how business operators can put leading from the front into practice:
Provide opportunities for work-based learning. “Students learn about work at work, right? That's how we get exposed to it,” he said. “We need more students scheduled into work-based learning opportunities, and we need more business space to open their doors, to host them, period, end of story. Until we can lean into that single strategy, it's going to be very difficult to right the ship.”
Communicate and calibrate the skills needed. “The private sector has to communicate regularly,” he said. “It's why we host working hours, after hours, with our workforce development team to really help them understand this. But they have to understand that textbooks and lesson plans can't keep up with the advancements of the workplace. The teachers can, only if they know what is needed. It's why we've invested over $100,000 to build skills taxonomies with industry experts for the most frequently hired positions within the manufacturing sector in our region.”
Work within regions and industry clusters to develop the workforce pipeline. “The private sector has got to come together by industry cluster, because these [jobs] are highly specialized,” said Townsend. “They have to start to tactically develop their workforce pipeline starting in elementary school.”
Stop competing and quit making schools guess.“There's no point in continuing the Hunger Games approach for workforce development,” Townsend said. “It's not working. It will never work. You can't just deal for your peer within your industry sector. We have to build more density.And that's why we're convening our sectors one at a time to develop that strategic action plan and grow the volume of our existing and future talent.”
Roundtable Execs Lead Business Participation in Summit
The Roundtable was well represented during Wednesday’s Summit. In addition to presentations by Hickey and Townsend, Tennessee Board of Education member Jordan Mollenhour, co-owner of Mollenhour Gross, a Roundtable member company, offered closing remarks and reflections on the Summit.
“[Education and workforce development are] not immovable objects,” Mollenhour said. “These are complex issues. They are multidisciplinary. But they're not immovable objects. And I have seen firsthand that you can absolutely make a difference. But you're not going to make a difference if you're not involved.
Mollenhour also urged Summit business attendees to “be available.”
“I get that it's easy to walk away today thinking, ‘Oh, those are some great ideas. They'll fix it. We've got some smart people up on stage. They'll kind of figure it out,’” he said. “It doesn't work that way. Each of us needs to be available.
“We may not know exactly what we're supposed to do in this moment. But if you make a phone call, whether it's to the governor's office or to someone here on stage or to just someone that you know who is sort of in that field, and you just let them know, ‘hey, I'm available to volunteer.’ It might be something small. It might be something big. I would say in many regards, that's all you need to do to start the ball rolling.”
Other Roundtable principal executives in attendance at Wednesday’s Summit included:
Board Chair Mike Harrell, principal business advisor of Latitude Advisors in Chattanooga
Chair-elect David Pickler, president and CEO of Pickler Wealth Advisors in Collierville
Director Emeritus Gordon Fee, of Oak Ridge
West Tennessee Regional Vice President Dr. Nassar Nassar, CEO of Savant Learning Systems in Martin
Workforce Chair Chris Snow, senior vice president of American Residential Services in Memphis
Michael Fann, president of Public Entity Partners in Franklin
Ryan Rothrock, executive vice president of Brown & Brown Insurance of Tennessee in Brentwood
Roundtable executives will get the chance to learn more about Future Forward Summit outcomes from SCORE's Mansouri at its Q3 Roundtable on Sept. 28 in Chattanooga.
For more photos from the Future Forward Summit, CLICK HERE.