The Pathways Tennessee framework: connecting industry and education

By Matthew Roberts, Pathways TN

In conversations about industry involvement in education, one phrase has been consistently used: the “skills gap.” This phrase refers to the challenge employers face when intending to hire new employees with all of the necessary skills to perform the job well. This “skills gap” isn’t new. In fact, it’s a dilemma industries in Tennessee have been facing for years. That’s why Pathways Tennessee was established in 2012—to bring industry and education together to create a framework that will carry Tennesseans from middle school to postsecondary to career. As we begin the 2017-18 school year, let’s take a moment to learn what exactly a pathway is, so we can all work together to ensure Tennesseans are prepared for careers in our communities.

The Pathways framework begins in middle school, or even earlier, and is rooted in the idea that industry involvement is a cornerstone for career preparation. We engage local industry leaders from fields that are expected to have high growth and challenge these industry partners to create relationships with teachers, schools, and students. These industry leaders should be participating in career fairs, letting students tour their work sites, or helping schools develop classroom activities by sharing what skills they are looking for in future employees. For example, students in the First Tennessee region had the opportunity to attend Career Quest Tennessee, a career fair that encourages exploration and discovery. GE, AT&T, Johnson City Power, and other major companies hosted interactive exhibits and presentations where students learned more about growing careers. These hands-on experiences give students a first-hand look at job growth in their area and encourage career exploration at an early age.

As students transition to high school, counselors and educators guide them into programs of study and general education courses that will provide them with the relevant education and experience to succeed in a career field. These programs of study should align with each student’s interests and strengths.  While students take courses in an approved program of study, they should bank postsecondary credits, earn industry certifications that align with the courses they take, and participate in work-based learning. All of these opportunities are designed to prepare students for success in the workplace and whatever postsecondary option they choose.

Here’s an example. Let’s say a student is interested in advanced manufacturing and is in the mechatronics program of study. Not only would this student take general education courses, but he or she could also take dual enrollment mechatronics through a local postsecondary institution and earn a Level 1 Siemens Certified Mechatronic Systems Assistant industry certification. With this certification, a student could enter the workforce as an industrial engineering technician with an expected salary of around $50,000, but this student is also better prepared and has completed credits toward a postsecondary credential thanks to his or her dual enrollment course.

Pathways TN has a unique approach that doesn’t just focus on a one-size-fits-all state implementation. Tennessee is divided into nine regions with dedicated intermediaries on the ground in each region. Each intermediary serves as a champion and liaison, convening business and industry support, coordinating cross-agency conversations, securing resources to sustain the work, and fostering cohesive, purposeful relationships between industry and education to ensure the framework moves from theory to reality. Intermediaries can work for non-profits, chambers of commerce, or even local industry leaders, and they serve as the glue that binds the framework to fit an approach that is effective for each region.

Career readiness does not just stop at a high school diploma. Within the next decade, over half of all of the jobs available in Tennessee will require a postsecondary credential or degree. The Pathways framework, therefore, works to ensure students can transition seamlessly from secondary to postsecondary education. We believe that all students should have a postsecondary degree, certificate, certification, or diploma, as this education will soon be a requirement for experience in the workplace. The Pathways framework allows Tennesseans to have entry and exit points. After earning an industry certification at a TCAT, for example, someone may decide to go back to school to earn a two-year degree or more. Pathways TN is not an initiative that propels Tennesseans to just one job; instead, it is a lifetime focus, expecting citizens to further their education or advance in their field. After all, a career is not just a job placement— it’s a lifetime of opportunities.

Interested in learning more about Pathways TN? Visit, email, and follow @Pathways_TN on Twitter.