This op-ed originally published in Forbes.
There is an untenable disconnect between today’s education curriculum (K-12 and higher) and the requirements of the modern workforce. I’m increasingly thinking about this issue because as we build and grow businesses, including through Frist Cressey Ventures, I want those jobs to be filled by talented Tennesseans. But, what we’re finding is that for every 100 open jobs in our state, we only have skilled workers to fill 56 of them — just more than half. In fact, two out of three Tennessee business leaders surveyed say there are not enough skilled local workers to meet their employment needs. That’s a serious concern.
It’s time to strengthen the intersection of education and employment — these are not siloed experiences but rather ones that are deeply interconnected and interdependent. There is no single problem we can point to that’s preventing the smooth transition from the classroom to the job, but rather, a series of challenges that require the collective engagement of all stakeholders involved to solve.
That is why we at SCORE, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, organized and hosted the “Future Forward Summit: Business Leaders Transforming Education to Workforce Success.” Here, in a day-long convening in downtown Nashville, I had the opportunity to moderate two solution-rich discussions that brought together some of the best minds solving these issues in our state and the nation.
Identifying The Current Challenges And Building A Foundation For Opportunities
We opened the day with Dr. Celeste Carruthers, professor of labor economics at the business school at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Cheryl Oldham, vice president of education policy at the US Chamber of Commerce, and Dr. Stephen Moret, president and CEO of the Strada Education Foundation. I joined them on stage and together we kicked off the summit by diagnosing the problems we are facing in the education-to-workforce pipeline, and identifying areas for intervention.
One of the challenges that Dr. Carruthers highlighted was the declining confidence in higher education, with a recent Gallup poll showing only 36 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, down from 48 percent in 2018 and 57 percent in 2015. Lower rates of secondary education application and attendance, which dropped during the pandemic in part due to a tighter labor market, are still at lower levels because of this lack of confidence.
Yet higher education plays an integral role in building wealth and creating a strong tax base for our state. Workers with a bachelor’s degree tend to make about $600,000 more over their lifetimes than those with only a high school diploma, Dr. Carruthers shared. (And as a doctor, I know higher education levels are tied to better health outcomes and longer lives.) Among Tennesseans ages 25+, about 31 percent have a bachelor’s degree or more.
In contrast, Dr. Moret suggested that the decline in college attendance may actually be a good thing for our nation — an unpopular opinion, he recognized — but explained that in America today, there are really two college labor markets. Roughly two-thirds have college-level careers, and they are building wealth. But there’s roughly a third that are underemployed, they are not working college-level jobs, they are not building wealth, and frequently are underwater in student loans. “I don’t want to oversimplify it … there’s a question about value,” he explained, noting that we’re seeing increases in the education programs that have good outcomes, and a decline in those that do not.
Dr. Moret stressed we also need more data. We need enhanced wage records, for example — we know how much workers make and what industry they are in, but we don’t know what job they have. Having that data would help us understand the supply gaps. He also underscored that we don’t have good data on outcomes for non-degree credentials, something that could further inform whether this piece of our education pipeline is feeding into family-sustaining professions.
Cheryl Oldham brought the perspective of businesses nationally to the conversation and observed that workforce readiness has been an area that business leaders have productively engaged policymakers on. They’ve gotten less traction on elementary education policy, however, which is more highly politicized. But it can’t be ignored. Only about one in four kids are proficient in reading and math in Tennessee, and that drops precipitously to about one in 10 with minority and low-income students.
Further, if we are going to fix education to workforce alignment, business leaders need to do more than post a job description and hope people come. “Hope is not a strategy, talent pipeline management is,” Cheryl stated. Second, she remarked that the business community has the kind of leverage that can move policy in a state. She cited 2008 when the US Chamber called out Tennessee for its poor K-12 test scores, which moved the business community and then policymakers to act. Any state education commissioner needs the business community behind them when trying to solve for readiness challenges. Dr. Moret echoed that getting policy right is more important than anything else, and that Tennessee is better positioned than any other state to do that now. As the panel closed with final thoughts and visions for the future, he suggested the creation of a grand partnership of business, primary and post-secondary educators, and policymakers — not just to better meet talent needs of employers, but also to address equitable pathways for student employment opportunity — breaking down the silos that have prevented seamless coordination.
Creating Momentum For The Future Of Work
My next conversation was with Dr. Joseph Fuller, professor of management practice and coleader of managing the future of work at Harvard Business School.
What struck me was his emphasis on the things we are failing to teach our children for the jobs of today and tomorrow. Early in the discussion, Professor Fuller asked the audience, “Why are there so many Russian teenage hackers? Because in Russia, there are four years of [education on] what are called informatics. … They teach it.”
Not only are we behind in our technical and digital education, but we are also missing an opportunity to get ready for the artificial intelligence revolution. “We are all hugely aware of the pace of technology and technological innovation. Where does technology get directed? At hard skills,” Professor Fuller remarked. “What’s left? The stuff that’s hard for technology to do. … The social skills quotient is just going to get bigger.”
He explained further: “It’s really hard to teach an introverted 18-year-old who has lived in a [disadvantaged] community social skills.” Professor Fuller gave examples, “We don’t emphasize spontaneous daily writing. Give me 100 words on this. We don’t emphasize spontaneous delivery.” We don’t front-load social skills, he continued. And the number one reason he’s found for firing today? Soft skills deficit.
“The labor force is increasingly shaped like a barbell,” Professor Fuller observed when asked about the future. A slug of people who do manual, low-wage work, and a slug of well-educated people who have picked up sufficient soft skills to do high-wage work that can’t be replaced by technology. His final thoughts to the audience: “Business has got to assume the problem is not going to solve itself.” If your manufacturer gave you one in three defective products, he conjectured, would you ask your governor or your legislators to fix it? No, you’d send engineers there to fix it. That is how business must approach workforce readiness.
Examples In Action
SCORE also brought in some cutting-edge leaders who have found new ways to solve the talent gap and build their own workforce pipelines, which they shared in quick “spark” sessions.
One compelling idea came from Ted Townsend, president & CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber. The Chamber recognized that Memphis K-12 graduates weren’t aware or fully prepared for the professional opportunities in their own communities. So Ted and his team created paid “teacher externships” in partnership with local companies, where the teachers could receive hands-on experience in what skills employers needed in future graduates. In turn, the teachers were able to share with their students what opportunities are available in their communities, including in industries like construction, biosciences, health care, and marketing, and get them excited and engaged in learning for their future.
Dr. JD Hickey, CEO of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, presented another exciting approach. Dr. Hickey realized they were struggling to meet their computer science and IT needs, and were finding the graduates they were employing weren’t adequately skilled. Dr. Hickey and his team decided to solve the problem themselves. They took a leap of faith and created their own BlueSky Tennessee Institute, a two-year program that teaches high school graduates the skills they need to be an integral part of BCBS of Tennessee. The accelerated program includes a paid internship in the second year, and a $65,000 salaried job upon successful completion. BCBST partnered with East Tennessee State University to implement the program, and the results have exceeded expectations and provide a great opportunity for Hamilton County youth. Further, Dr. Hickey is committed to making this approach open source — and has an open-door policy for any employer who wants to learn from or adopt his health plan’s approach.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, so many goods and services were seriously delayed or unavailable entirely because of supply chain issues. In Tennessee, and in many parts of America, we are missing the most important supply input — a skilled workforce that’s ready to engage on day one.
SCORE’s Future Forward Summit helped plant some important seeds this week. Through a mix of employer engagement, sound policy, and innovative education solutions, we can address this challenge that’s inhibiting economic growth and build an engaged, skilled workforce for the future.