By Joe Kent – Guest Blogger

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Sponsored locally by HRO Partners and Jaguar/Land Rover Bluff City, the nation touring Age of Agility education to employment conference was just held in Memphis. The conference encourages a regional conversation around human talent pipeline development in support of regional economic development goals.

The conference was encouraging based on Tennessee being newly recognized as a leader in educational reform while the University of Memphis fires on all cylinders with innovative partnerships and offerings that keep student costs down. Educators listening to customer employer needs and employers being more involved in the talent pipeline development effort were consistent themes. Largely unanswered concerns from audience members were around specific next steps to get industry more involved with local education. This concern will be addressed later in this article in concert with discussion involving local workforce development organizations in the Workforce Investment Network (WIN) and the Greater Memphis Alliance for Competitive Workforce (GMACW).

At the conference, industry employers were represented by Chris Winton VP of FedEx Human Resources, Gretchen Stroud VP of Hilton Learning and Bradley Jackson President of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce. Education was represented by Dr. David Rudd President of the University of Memphis, Dr. Candice McQueen, Commissioner of Tennessee Department of Education and Mike Krause, Executive Director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

Business and Education

From business, Jackson discussed how workforce preparedness has grown in importance in recent years. Winton and Stroud stated that college degrees were much less important today while stressing the importance of true skill attainment that includes soft skills and career pathways counseling starting in middle school. Winton also stressed the importance of entrepreneurial education for all to support cross functional skill development since entrepreneurs must function across multiple areas of expertise. Cross functional skill development gives students agility in the workforce while entrepreneurial education encourages starting a small business which is a Memphis economic development need.

From education, McQueen focused on career counseling, work-based learning and transforming the 11th and 12th grade experience toward a more relevant post-secondary focus while in high school. Work based learning includes high school credit for internships, apprenticeships and paid work experience. Krause stressed no-cost 1 to 2 year certification/degree access for all via Tennessee Promise, listening to customer employers for specific needs to improve the curriculum and relying more on technology for instructional delivery to engage current day students. And Rudd discussed a nation leading innovative industry partnership with FedEx, managing student tuition affordability and the high-quality University of Memphis Online Global degree platform which will be further discussed in an upcoming article. All educators praised the work of the Tennessee General Assembly which was represented by Representative Mark White of Memphis, Chairman of the House Education Committee.

Next Steps

Audience members seemed most curious about specific next steps to continue the regional conversation to get industry more involved in education which was not covered at the conference. Next steps to continue a productive conversation between diverse professional groups (industry and educators) requires a common language. In this case, common language can be established using customer employer skill and knowledge demand married with student needs to close the skills gap using career pathways curriculum.

Business education partnerships have been around a long time and fail regularly. This failure can be linked to the lack of a common language. A 2014 report from the North Carolina Commission on Workforce Development found that employers and researchers definitions of “skills” often differ from one another and even scientific surveys use a variety of designs and definitions of “skills”.

This finding points to the need for establishing a common set of skills and definitions demanded by the customers of the workforce development system in employers. Given this, the following steps can be taken to support a productive and sustainable conversation between employers and educators:

Step 1. Establish a common dataset of employer demanded skills and knowledge (Demand)
Step 2. Identify student career preferences, interests, needs and skills through assessment (Supply)
Step 3. Integrate standards based academic curriculum with employer demanded skills, knowledge and technology with personalized student learning (Career Pathways)

The above steps provide a common language foundation to support productive and ongoing communication between customer employers and educators. Additionally, the above steps provide a methodology for integrating a meaningful part of the career counseling workload into the academic curriculum. In this way, career counselors support a career infused academic curriculum.

The career infused academic curriculum for all then provides entry points for industry to engage the educational system while productively communicating with educators using a common language. The resulting standards-based career pathways curriculum then insures educators that they are seamlessly meeting both academic standards and customer employer demand requirements to support regional economic development efforts.


Unlike many communities, the good news is that Memphis has the organizations in place to accelerate the workforce development conversation in the age of agility. On the other hand, mired in red tape, as reported by Memphis Business Journal, collectively, the Workforce Investment Network (WIN) and Greater Memphis Alliance for Competitive Workforce (GMACW) have struggled to help fill 15,000 current job openings.

Disconnected efforts are often referenced for the ineffectiveness per the above article and in another Memphis Business Journal article featuring the observations of local business leader R. Brad Martin. Clearly defining the respective roles of WIN and GMACW for all local stakeholders would well serve local efforts. One approach may be to define WIN’s role to serve out of school audiences and GMACW’s to serve in school audiences.

Once respective organization roles are established, a common language should be deployed to facilitate productive conversations between diverse stakeholders to support local talent pipeline and economic development efforts. A common language would establish 1) datasets to define employer demand 2) occupationally aligned assessments to diagnose people’s needs (supply) and 3) Career pathways curriculum to support people in developing the skills to pursue desired careers, connecting with and filling jobs.


The age of agility demands an ongoing conversation to support talent pipeline development efforts to drive regional economic growth. It’s a conversation that leverages technology while promoting in demand career pathways and supports developing the academic, soft and cross functional entrepreneurial skills required to succeed in the age of agility.

The ongoing conversation requires industry engagement and workforce development / curricular systems that accommodate engagement. WIN and GMACW, equipped with defined organizational roles, should be leveraged to accomplish the above while relying on best practices in work-based learning as demonstrated by such organizations as the Greater Memphis Medical Device Council.

In the end, it’s about leveraging available resources and connecting the dots through an ongoing conversation to develop and retain talent while promoting in demand career pathways to drive regional economic growth in the age of agility.

joe b. kent

Guest Blogger

Mr. Joe B. Kent has worked throughout the country on workforce and economic development projects and is a reform activist in Memphis. Joe B. has a BBA in Finance, Masters in Instructional Technology and is a certified Global Career Development Facilitator with an emphasis on labor market information.

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