Training Tennessee's future workforce is an urgent mission that starts in the classroom.

Friday, December 01, 2023 | 07:00am

Written by Darrell Cobbins and Larry Jensen, Tennessee State Board of Education members

As Tennessee State Board of Education members, we have the privilege to advocate for parents, teachers, students, and local school districts across all 95 counties. We take pride in the work of Tennessee’s 1,843 public schools and want to guarantee our students are developing the skills in the classroom to be adequately prepared for a lifetime of success. 

We recently attended the Future Forward Summit, hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), which allowed us to connect with over 150 business leaders, education leaders, and policymakers. In our time as Board members, this is the first event that brought forth the challenges and tangible solutions to ensure Tennessee’s education policies are evolving in tandem with the needs of our ever-changing economy and workforce. 

While a critical conversation and a good start, this is just the beginning of a long journey to help Tennessee lead the nation in workforce development and become the best at preparing students for the jobs of the future. 

According to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, approximately 430,000 working-age Tennesseans do not possess a high school diploma or equivalent. And the median salary for Tennessee’s non-high school graduates is $23,955, according to the U.S. Career Institute. One can clearly reason that most of these Tennesseans are living on the edge of poverty. 

We also see at a local level that we have an estimated 100,000 Memphians experiencing poverty because they are in need of academic remediation to access career and technical education. How do we break the cycle of adults not finishing high school? We must start in our classrooms.

No matter what route a high school graduate takes upon graduation, he or she should feel confident knowing their future job can earn enough to cover the cost of living. Developing robust plans that include local school districts, collaborating with Tennessee’s Departments of Education, Labor and Workforce Development, and our many higher education institutions, can help reduce the common barriers many students face as they plan for education and training beyond high school. But changing the postsecondary-going landscape will require more than just state-level action. 

We must continue to rely on local chambers of commerce, which play an essential role in accelerating economic mobility by identifying our critical workforce needs and helping raise the visibility of businesses that can be innovative partners with local public school systems.

In West Tennessee, the Ford Motor Company is building relationships with Memphis-Shelby County Schools to prepare students for possible careers at BlueOval City. The company also continues efforts with other local districts to find ways their schools can align curriculum, hands-on training, and work-based learning opportunities. 

In particular, at Cordova High School, students are eligible to take industry-focused courses that lead to an Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification. With an ASE certification and depending on the position, workers could make between $21 to $29 per hour at BlueOval SK, part of BlueOval City’s future $5.6 billion campus in nearby Stanton, TN. 

As more employers put roots down in our state, Tennessee has an opportunity to take advantage of new initiatives that offer every student access to postsecondary and career success. Yet, without more active partnerships and CTE programming in our high schools, many students will not have the leverage to take on future workforce opportunities.

Ensuring Tennessee’s students are prepared and motivated to pursue the jobs of today and tomorrow will take school districts, chambers of commerce, state and local governments, businesses, and elected officials working together to strengthen our workforce pipeline, develop our students, and grow Tennessee from within. While no two students' paths will look the same, their K-12 education must set them up for successful lives and economic independence. 


Darrell Cobbins from Memphis, TN is the Vice-Chair for the Tennessee State Board of Education and represents Tennessee’s ninth congressional district for the State Board. Larry Jensen from Memphis, TN represents Tennessee’s eighth congressional district for the State Board.