It’s a bad habit: when we talk about preparing students for college and the workforce, we often forget about engaging the business community.

While high school graduation rates in Tennessee have been improving in recent years, far too few of our graduates are prepared for the rigors of college, which is becoming increasingly important to get the jobs of the future. For those high school graduates who decide to bypass postsecondary education, neither they nor their employers think they are prepared.

In light of these facts, we must think about ways to meaningfully engage all stakeholders, including high-impact influencers like our chambers of commerce and workforce development programs.

According to a recent Rutger’s study, “Left Out. Forgotten? Recent High School Graduates and the Great Recession,” recent high school graduates nationwide do not have an optimistic view about their job and educational prospects, in what the report sums up as “dashed dreams.” Researchers found that:

  • Only three in 10 high school graduates are employed full-time, compared to college graduates who are employed at nearly twice that rate.
  • Only 8 percent of recent high school graduates nationwide say they were extremely well prepared to get their first jobs following their high school education.
  • About two-thirds of high school graduates say they would do something different in the course of their high school education if they had it to do over, from being more careful in selecting academic electives and taking more classes to prepare for a career, to participating in an internship while in high school or working part-time.

Tennessee’s nearly 150 chambers of commerce, as well as workforce development programs, are uniquely well-positioned to address these issues in local communities and to make outreach to students more effective.

Professionals from diverse fields and vocations also can offer practical advice to inspire middle and high school students to embrace a career direction and to help students understand the education they must receive in order to secure rewarding and financially viable employment.

Several Tennessee chamber organizations have business-sponsored community-to-student programs in place, such as the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry’s Tennessee Scholars program. We should look to these programs as models for other communities throughout our state.

In order to create local models, here are some steps to consider:

  • Get a conversation going. Chamber and school district leaders should collaborate on practical ways for businesses to interact with students to increase the number of successful transitions from high school to higher education.
  • Start small. Modest initial outreach efforts that are not too complex or overwhelming to sustain generally prove to be the best starting point. First steps could include a “Workforce Preparedness Basics” class presentation or a “Career Day” that kicks off each new school year with a reminder about why education is relevant to students and communities.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Organizations like Junior Achievement as well as some professional societies already make a big impact in work-readiness for students, particularly in larger communities. Reach out to those groups closest to your area to see what they might offer.
  • Help students access grants to make college affordable. Economic barriers are cited as the top reason why high school graduates don’t pursue college educations. Coaching students early about accessible funding options should be emphasized.
  • Share successes and requests for involvement. Communicate with stakeholders – including other chamber members, educators, parents, and the media– about what’s getting accomplished and how they can participate to make an impact, thereby growing the program locally.

In Tennessee, there are many education policy- and budget-driven dialogues, debates, and reforms underway at state and local levels to effect positive change for public education.

Although making changes to our education system is absolutely necessary, we must remember that it is no longer just the responsibility of teachers to prepare students for their next steps after high school. The business community remains a largely untapped resource of guidance, influence and inspiration for Tennessee’s emerging workforce.