State Economic Success Requires Everyone Working Together

The future of the country’s economic success appears to be a team effort.

“One of the most important keys to our national growth and economic success is supporting a highly trained workforce,” West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said at CSG’s Policy Academy on Workforce Development, held Aug. 9 at the CSG National and CSG West Annual Conference in Alaska. “Education is the number one qualifier for jobs of today and tomorrow.”

Tomblin is CSG’s 2014 president. He and Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, who is serving as CSG’s 2014 chairman, have been working together on an initiative called State Pathways to Prosperity. The initiative is designed to address areas that may hinder state economic growth, such as a lack of a skilled workforce, childhood poverty and poor nutrition, veterans’ issues and the trouble faced by people leaving the criminal justice system and trying to enter the workforce.

Norris said it is an important time for state leaders to look at what they can do to help both businesses and constituents succeed in today’s economy—an economy in which manufacturing is making a resurgence in America.

“We have a renaissance in manufacturing in this country and there is a tremendous opportunity here,” Norris said. “For me, this is the rendezvous with destiny for this country if we can get up to speed.”

Part of that getting up to speed is making sure American businesses have not just the quantity of workers they need, but also the quality. Schools, colleges and universities are rising to meet that challenge.

In Cleveland, the MC2STEM High School is part of that effort. In February 2009, GE Lighting opened up its campus to help establish the first known high school embedded on an industrial campus. The MC2STEM High School, which closely links GE employees and students, began as other Cleveland schools were struggling for survival.

“In 2006 and 2007, the Cleveland school system was failing,” said Andrea Timan, GE Lighting’s community relations manager and liaison to the MC2STEM High School. “Only 62 percent of students were graduating. … GE had had a longstanding partnership with one of the local high schools in Cleveland and that partnership was failing as well.”

Timan said GE representatives met with school district officials in 2007 to see how they could support education.

“We didn’t have millions and millions of dollars to pour into the school district anymore,” she said. “Business was changing. But we have people and we have time to give.”

GE employees are paired with students in a buddy program to serve as mentors and sounding boards. Sophomores are divided into groups and work with GE employees in a project that gives students the chance to brainstorm, design, finance and market a new product that is presented to a leadership team at the company. A small group of seniors comes back to the GE campus and is paid to work with teams of employees on actual company projects.

“We really, truly work together to create one of the most unique partnerships in America,” Timan said.

And so far, the results have been impressive. Timan said the MC2STEM High School—which has 100 percent of the student body qualifying for free or reduced price meals—has had a 95 percent graduation rate for the past three years. Graduates have gone on to universities such as Harvard, Cornell and Case Western Reserve. It also has served as a model for similar schools across the country and, Timan said, a school that just opened in Egypt.

Jim Henderson, chancellor of Bossier Parish Community College in Louisiana, said his school also is changing to meet the demands of students and employers. The community college experience today may be dramatically different from what state policymakers remember.

Henderson said he found a picture of a young woman at graduation with a big smile on her face and two people kissing her cheeks. He thought it would be a great picture to use for promotional material, so he sent it to professors to find the woman’s name. No professor could tell him. After he posted the picture on Facebook, he quickly discovered she had just completed a cybertechnology degree online and had only set foot on campus once—for graduation.

“She was smiling because after finishing a cybertechnology degree online, she had a job earning $60,000 a year as a cyberwarrior,” Henderson said. “That’s our consumer.”

Having courses available online is important for today’s students, Henderson said. Facing a high rate of students who needed to take remedial classes before beginning credit-bearing classes, Henderson said his school came up with a new idea—massive open online courses.

“We took our entire developmental math sequence and developmental English classes and we took the best teachers we have … and we filmed them,” Henderson said. “We put it online and we offer it for free.”

So far, 14,000 students have taken more than 200,000 minutes of classes, he said. Ten people this summer have doubled scores on their placement exams after taking these free, online courses. The total cost to the college for developing this new system was just $23,000 and it’s open to students in any state.

“There’s no reason to create it,” Henderson said. “It’s online and available for free. Use it as you like.”

Jenci Spradlin, government and community relations liaison for the University of Memphis, reminded policymakers not to leave four-year universities out of the conversation when it comes to workforce development.

“It seems to me like common sense that we broaden our thinking,” she said, “particularly as you as policymakers look to improve the business climate of your state.”

Although it can be tricky to have the discussion at universities about how degrees apply to people actually being employable, Spradlin said those conversations are beginning to happen and it can be hard for universities to connect the dots. Policymakers’ ability to bring different groups together and begin a conversation about which way to go is crucial, she said.

“You can’t imagine how many organizations are working on doing the same thing or similar things and they just don’t realize it,” Spradlin said. “After you convene groups like this, you say, ‘Where do you go from here.’ You can ask Sen. Norris; it is not easy.”