December 2, 2023


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Closing The Talent Gap: From K-12 To Career

6 min read
Closing The Talent Gap: From K-12 To Career

In the post-pandemic era, our nation is facing a persistent and increasingly urgent challenge: many students graduating from our education systems are not adequately prepared to meet current and future workforce needs.

A concern I’ve previously shared is that in my home state of Tennessee, for every 100 job openings, we have just 56 workers to fill those roles.

Tennessee’s economy is dynamic and is projected to grow 16 percent by 2030, creating about 500,000 jobs – but these exciting new opportunities will continue to leave behind those underprepared for the workforce.

Compounding these challenges, the proliferation of generative AI will have a significant impact on the scope of occupations and skills required in the workplace of the future.

And a large, aging population will soon exit the labor force, leaving an increased number of vacancies across multiple industries.

Education is foundational to meeting these changing workforce needs. And in a workforce where a high school diploma is no longer enough to prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed, it’s worth examining why just one-quarter of Tennessee 9th grade students will graduate college with a postsecondary degree or credential.

Addressing The Worker Shortage Begins In The Classroom

Earlier this month, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) — a non-profit policy organization I founded in 2009 – convened business and education leaders at our Future Forward Summit to hear from national and state thought leaders and elevate the pivotal role that education plays in addressing these dire labor shortages in Tennessee and across the nation. Workforce readiness begins with education, and the Summit elevated the importance of partnership, investment, and coordinated policy across K-12, higher education, and the workforce to prepare every student to meet employment needs today and in the future.

What did we learn?

Gaps start early – less than half of Tennessee’s third-grade students can read and write on grade level, and even fewer are proficient in seventh-grade Math. Students must be equipped with foundational skills in literacy and numeracy to be prepared for the ever-changing job landscape across the state. Tennessee has enacted bold policy reforms over the last few years that require a focus on research-backed literacy instruction across K-12 schools, and this work – along with an increased focus on high-quality math instruction – must be maintained if we are to support and narrow this urgent worker shortage today and moving forward.

The education-to-work gap also hinges on the ability of postsecondary education to adapt to urgent, shifting workforce demands and to actively support all students in attaining a credential or degree of value. Research from the Strada Education Foundation shows that 70 percent of first-year college students intend to participate in some sort of internship – whether a co-op, field experience, or clinical placement – and yet fewer than 50 percent of students actually participate in one by their senior year. This lack of opportunity for students to apply their learning in workforce settings while pursuing postsecondary learning is a clear challenge that leaves many students without the skills, knowledge, or relationships to be competitive and prepared.

The challenge of ensuring students can enter careers that enable economic independence is also a postsecondary completion problem. Data shows that just 1 in 2 students attending a public college or university in Tennessee will actually complete a postsecondary credential over the course of 6 years. We must continue to invest in strategies – like high-quality career coaching and completion grants – to support more students to finish their postsecondary credential or degree of value to enter the workforce.

Education-Industry Partnership Are The Way Forward

One essential strategy was heard loud and clear at SCORE’s Future Forward Summit: We cannot continue with education as we always have. Stronger education-industry partnerships are the path forward to addressing Tennessee’s talent gap. Industry-led partnerships forged between a business and an education partner around a specific employment need are some of the most impactful models for education-to-work pathways. These models have some common ingredients that are most critical for us to address this urgent worker shortage and to ensure every student is prepared for a job that enables them to achieve economic independence. Here are a few characteristics of the best models:

· First, innovative education-industry models use data to drive partnerships. Employers who identify a clear employment need using public and internal data can design a partnership with an education provider to most effectively meet these needs. For example, FedEx
identified low staff retention rates among its 12 FedEx Express
hubs across the country where employees sort through and track packages. The company partnered with the University of Memphis to provide employees with the opportunity to earn a Bachelor’s degree in organizational management through the Learning Inspired by FedEx (LiFE) program. This data-driven partnership has helped FedEx with retention challenges, as employees who go through the program are 25 percent less likely to leave than those who do not participate.

· These models also co-design learning, with employers and education partners designing a curriculum and skills necessary to meet the employer’s job needs. In Arizona, Intel
and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company have an urgent need to hire qualified semiconductor technicians as they open plants in the region. These companies partnered with Maricopa Community Colleges to create a 10-day training program that covers the basics of semiconducting and requires students to pass two certifications – skilling these students quickly to meet their growing job needs.

· The most innovative education-industry models also provide students with the opportunity to earn an industry-recognized credential and an on-ramp to potential employment. The Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College Charter High School was launched in Rhode Island to meet the critical shortage in nurses, and the public charter school offers students – beginning in ninth grade – with comprehensive academic programming that includes preparatory nurses training and offers students the opportunity to earn numerous certifications in nursing, emergency medical technology, and other in-demand areas.

· Finally, these partnerships are built and sustained through collaborative people. For these models to happen, buy-in from every level of the organization is paramount. Additionally, employers and educators must dedicate staff capacity to focus on forging, maintaining, and growing these partnerships to continue to narrow this urgent and growing talent gap Tennessee and the nation faces. The models listed above, and so many others, persist through people who take the time to do the hard work of creating and maintaining education-industry partnerships.

The gap between workforce needs and students’ ability to meet those needs is an urgent challenge to solve for, but the solutions to narrow this gap are not unknown. Foundational learning in K-12 education, greater applied workforce opportunities and support in postsecondary education, and education-industry partnerships will form the foundation needed to resolve the persistent disconnect between what students learn in the classroom and what employers need on the job.

In Tennessee, and in our nation, we have risen to the occasion to improve student opportunity to spur economic growth so many times in the past, and we can do it again.


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