By Jennifer Ginn, CSG Associate Editor
When policymakers think about economic development, it usually involves things like tax exemptions, matching funds or infrastructure development. What happens in classrooms, however, rarely enters into the equation.
Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, who is serving as The Council of State Governments’ 2014 chair, believes it’s time to change that. He likes to talk about when Unilever was considering expanding a plant in Tennessee, but couldn’t find enough new employees trained in advanced manufacturing techniques.
“What I found was that, internally, our state Department of Economic and Community Development was not communicating very effectively with our state Department of Labor and Workforce Development,” Norris said. “Nor were either of them communicating with the Department of Higher Education. It was a great opportunity, but we were sort of fumbling the ball and not delivering a ready workforce.”
When Norris attended a roundtable discussion hosted by Gov. Bill Haslam, he heard the Unilever plant manager expressing his frustration at not being able to find employees. A community college representative, who had heard nothing about the employee problem, started talking to the plant manager.
That’s when wheels began turning in Tennessee.
“The result was, by aligning forces and communicating about what they needed, the state was able to put together a custom training program in sufficient time and they (Unilever) got the employees,” Norris said. “Within a 12-month period, Unilever is now sold on Tennessee. They’re not only doing that plant expansion, they’re (also) consolidating their North American operations here and building the largest ice cream factory in the world.”
More state leaders are now saying that education and economic development must go hand in hand.
Taking a LEAP
Last year, Norris sponsored Senate Bill 1330, which created the Labor Education Alignment Program, otherwise known as LEAP. The program gives students at community colleges and colleges of applied technology the chance to earn academic credit while working in a high skill or high technology industry. Norris likens it to apprenticeship programs that were popular in the 1970s and ’80s.
But that’s not all that’s going on in the Volunteer State.
The governor last year launched a Drive to 55 Initiative to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with a postsecondary degree or credential to 55 percent by 2025 to keep up with the demand of the marketplace. Also, 12 colleges are partnering with 125 high schools across the state during the 2013–14 school year to offer developmental math courses to struggling high school seniors before they graduate so they can enter college ready to take credit-bearing courses.
These programs, Norris said, require a closer alignment of K–12 education, higher education and state workforce agencies.
“It’s so basic,” Norris said. “That was part of my epiphany. … Different departments are competing for scarce resources and finding comfort within their own silos, not wanting to peek over the edge of those silos for fear of losing ground in the battle for funding.”
Norris said it has required frank discussions among the leadership of the various stakeholders to convince them that “leveraging and maximizing their resources results in greater support, not less support. But they need the assurance that that will be the outcome from the legislative branch and the executive branch. It’s a process.”
CSG and NGA
Norris, as CSG chair, and West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, as CSG president, have chosen a leaders’ initiative that links economic development to education, similar to Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s initiative as chair of the National Governors Association.
“Improving our workforce and ensuring it remains internationally competitive is an issue that not only calls for national attention, it also demands gubernatorial leadership,” Fallin said. “Our future economic security will require significant improvements to our education system and workforce training programs. It also will require closer relationships among our high schools, colleges, workforce training providers and employers.”
Norris said it was Fallin’s work with the NGA that helped him decide on the leaders’ initiative with CSG—“Workforce Development and Education: State Pathways to Prosperity.”
“Rather than reinvent the wheel, let’s keep our shoulders to the same wheel and keep working on this subject and get it right,” he said. “It’s going to take all states working together, both the legislative and executive branches, to move this forward as fast as we need to.”
Oklahoma’s New Thinking
Fallin is radically rethinking economic development and education, said Robert Sommers, state director of Oklahoma’s Department of Career and Technology Education and secretary of education and workforce development in the governor’s cabinet. Even his position is something new.
“It used to be secretary of education and then there was the secretary of workforce,” Sommers said. “The governor put the two of them together because of her belief that one of the core missions of education should be to prepare people to be economically productive.”
Education and workforce development have a new mission statement, which is to create wealth in Oklahoma—“the wealth of individuals, the wealth of companies and in turn, the wealth of the state,” Sommers said.
“Do I care about high school graduates? Absolutely,” he said. “But what I really care about is what students actually know when they graduate from high school and are they prepared to go to the next transition.
“Can I get an industry credential done while in high school? Well, that adds to their wealth-building capacity. Do I send a kid directly to college or do I send them to a high-paying job where the company pays for college? That’s a real wealth builder. That’s how our thinking is transitioning.”
Sommers said the state is moving away from monitoring individual program performance to a more community or regional evaluation of education and workforce development. Higher education and career and technology education also are being transitioned to performance-based funding.
Getting agencies to work together toward a common goal can be fraught with difficulties, Sommers said, but it is possible.
“What we’re trying desperately hard, not always successfully, to say is this isn’t about blame,” he said. “It’s not about fault. This is about if Oklahoma is going to advance, here’s what we need to have done. We’ve got to have wealthier people, how can you contribute to that? (It’s) not this is how you’re going to run your programs.”
One example of what’s possible when education, businesses and economic development come together is the Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative, commonly known as AMTEC. The collaborative is a National Science Foundation-designated Advanced Technological Center located within the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.
In 2004, community and technical college leaders from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee were discussing their assorted automotive training programs at a national conference. They began wondering if colleges, working with industry partners, could do better.
Caren Caton was general manager of Toyota’s North American Production Support Center, a regional training facility, until her retirement in 2012. She said Toyota, which operates a plant in Georgetown, Ky., has a long history of working with the Bluegrass Community and Technical College System, which helps teach maintenance employees skills that Toyota instructors are not able to teach.
But, Caton said, when the first meeting was held in 2005 between automotive heavyweights like Toyota, Ford and General Motors and community college leaders, it was a radical idea.
“The things we were thinking about in 2005 was, ‘Wow, this is a great idea,’” she said. “We hadn’t thought of it.
“Historically, the automotive companies have worked separately. Of course, your competitive advantage is something that you protect. But what we had to think about though was … the technical training we were talking about is really common across the industry. By itself, it wasn’t something making us strong.”
Danine Alderete-Tomlin, executive director of AMTEC, said the national collaborative received funding from the National Science Foundation to get off the ground. Originally comprised of representatives from 12 colleges and 18 car companies from eight states—collaborative members worked together with AMTEC staff to build a curriculum and assessment tool to help colleges across the country educate and deliver a more skilled automotive manufacturing technician graduate.
“It is unique in that we have gotten to the distinct advanced skill sets that are needed in a manufacturing environment for a multi-skilled technician,” Tomlin said. “It was specifically designed to accelerate the learning experience and build on the areas they (students) may have weaknesses in. The research, meetings and analysis have yielded an innovative instructional design that is an industry-driven model.”
Caton said collaborations like AMTEC are perfect for states, businesses and students.
“Industry really should be telling the community colleges what skill sets they are looking for,” she said. “There was no reason really to expect community colleges to know that, but traditionally, that’s how it’s worked out. The colleges offer the programs and then the students are out there for you to hire. This is sort of taking a Toyota principle, which is customer input and really understanding what the customer wants, and using that to strengthen schools’ programs.”
Rhode to Work
In December 2013, Rhode Island had the nation’s highest unemployment rate at 9.1 percent. In January, the state’s senate released a legislative action plan called “Rhode to Work” detailing a variety of legislation that will be introduced this session to try to tackle the state’s unemployment rate, which hovered around 9 percent throughout 2013.
The plan involves things such as eliminating waiting lists for adult education classes for unemployed or underemployed learners, reducing costs for high school equivalency tests, and creating a seamless and cohesive workforce training system.
“I think that the most challenging issue is to reimagine our career and technical education,” said Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed. “In Rhode Island, one of the issues that we confront is that traditional career and technical education has worked well, but it hasn’t changed in years.
“While the carpentry and the cosmetology and the auto body programs are very important, we need to start expanding at a greater pace than we currently are. Only 10 percent of the new money we invested last year went into new programs in health care, into IT. … We believe we need to make greater investments into growing fields.”
But while working with industry to make sure graduates have the skills needed for the workplace is important, Paiva Weed said, so is working with parents and teachers to help them see how workplaces are evolving.
“Part of what we run into is really just changing the way that school counselors, parents think about, for example, manufacturing,” she said. They need help “recognizing that manufacturing is a career choice; it has high-tech jobs. It’s not the sweatshops of 50 years ago that folks may recall. It is a career path that we need to train our young people to be prepared to take jobs there and encourage them that these are career opportunities.”