Solving the skills gap: Tennessee’s evolution puts students on right path | Opinion

By Dee Haslam

More than 3 million students graduated from high schools across our country this spring, and I can’t help but wonder what their futures will hold.

Some will transition to higher education; others will enter the workforce. Unfortunately, along the way, many of these young adults will find that they are missing necessary skills to fill a range of high-paying, in-demand jobs.

You’ve likely heard of America’s “skills gap.” This gap is the differences between what employers need to fill existing positions and the current knowledge and skills workers offer.

Last year, our country had 6.2 million job openings according to the U.S. Department of Labor. At the same time, 7 million Americans were unemployed.

The disconnect between the skills jobseekers hold and the ones employers seek has resulted in far too many people being left behind. And that disconnect — the widening skills gap — doesn’t bode well for the futures of our families, our communities or our nation.

But what if we could do better? What if each student had the chance to launch his or her own path to a career while still in high school — the opportunity to prepare for meaningful, in-demand careers before they entered the workforce?

Creating effective Career and Technical programs

Many states have caught this vision and are working to create career and technical education programs that align with the needs of employers.

With these programs, high school students can earn industry certifications, college credits and other credentials that will prepare them for a career. Businesses can also nurture their future workforce by offering training and internships for students.

Not only does this prepare students for a career, it also saves them time and money—giving students the opportunity to study and explore career options before graduating  from high school.

Education is an increasingly vital part of a state’s long-term economic plan. In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative is prioritizing a skilled and vibrant workforce and we are lucky to have several successful examples.

One of these programs lies in the Upper Cumberland region where the Highlands Economic Partnership of Tennessee is working collaboratively with K-12, higher education, and industry partners to prepare students for high-quality, in-demand careers.

Summit explores how to best help students succeed

The cross-sector partnership of Highlands, along with other approaches and programs, has drawn national attention in ExcelinEd’s series of career and technical education playbooks that help state and local policymakers, school districts and businesses collaborate to build a workforce for the ever-evolving economic landscape.

Highlands is part of the Tennessee Pathways statewide network, and provides students with work-based learning opportunities to match the needs of targeted industries and existing industry in the region from engineering and health sciences to information technology. One of the ways they have done this is by developing a seamless nursing pathway for students to progress from high school through postsecondary.

Tennessee is looking for further innovations.

On Thursday, in Nashville, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education convened the Future Ready Summit to explore how we best can help students discover successful routes to college, career and opportunity.

Tennessee is on the right path. And I have faith that by working together, we can ensure a successful 21st-century landscape where everyone has the opportunity to pursue their dreams.

Dee Bagwell Haslam is a member of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd) board of directors and serves on the State Collaborative of Reforming Education (SCORE) in Tennessee as well as the Emerald Youth Foundation.

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