Memphis alliance tackling workforce challenges

Late last year, leadership in the Memphis metro area released a regional economic plan focused on building long-term growth and opportunity through economic diversification. Their first priority? Confronting Memphis’s workforce challenges.

Only slightly more than one third of Memphis residents hold either a bachelor’s or associate degree, compared to the national average of 42 percent. Attainment also differs starkly by race: White residents hold bachelor’s degrees or higher at nearly double the rate of black residents. At the same time, demand from employers for higher skills, particularly for middle-skill jobs that do not require a four-year college degree, creates both a major opportunity for the region—and a threat to its long-term economic prospects.

To address these challenges, leaders organized the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce, an ambitious intermediary charged with establishing a coherent approach to skills development, beginning in the K-12 system and extending across the postsecondary system with a particular focus on community and technical colleges.

While still in its formative stages, the alliance has received unprecedented support from top-tier civic leaders, including both the city and county mayors, as well as business, education, workforce and philanthropic organizations, securing an initial $2.5 million in private funding to leverage more than $10 million in federal and state grants. To lead it, regional leaders recruited Glen Fenter, a veteran of more than two decades at the helm of Mid-South Community College during which he transformed the West Memphis, Ark. school into a well-regarded community college serving 2,000 students.

We reached out to Fenter about his vision for the alliance and what makes its approach potentially transformative for the Memphis region.

What prompted you to give up your role with the community college to take on the challenge of forming the alliance?

It was my experience in Arkansas and the understanding of how powerful some of the tools that we used there were in transforming the lives of people in a very impoverished region of the country. This was a way to take what we had learned and reach a larger number of people. Understanding the region’s great potential to improve its future, quite frankly it became sort of a moral conviction that this was the right thing to do.

While the alliance is still in its early stages, how is implementation moving forward?

If we were starting over from scratch developing an educational model in this country, it probably wouldn’t look a whole lot like the one we inherited. Certainly every region is trying to come to grips with that. For us, it’s simply trying to make the model more linear: connecting people with skills that actually are marketable in the workplace and connecting businesses with the workforce that they need to compete—and doing both as effectively and efficiently as we can.

One thing that’s unique about the circumstances that we’re in is that, because of the skills deficit, there’s never been a better time to change the educational model to create shorter, more powerful educational opportunities for our people. Middle-skill jobs that require more than a high school education but less than a four-year degree can yield career opportunities with unprecedented middle-class income levels. A lot of what we’re trying to do is change the paradigm that the only answer to a young person’s future is to chase a four-year degree. To let them understand there are other options—there are great career opportunities that are not dead-end jobs, and they’re readily available in the Memphis region.

One of our strategies obviously is aligning K-12 and the post-secondary curriculum models with what we know are the jobs that are available today and what we expect those jobs to be five years from now. We’re merging the program in Shelby County schools and suburban schools so that high school students can receive TCAT [Tennessee College of Applied Technology] credit, streamlining the model and, through federal funding, developing a bachelor’s of applied science degree in the region so those students can earn a bachelor’s degree if they see fit.

What is different about the approach the alliance is taking?

The alliance is designed to be independent of any of the older models. It has private funding and is charged with working with every available resource. We have strong leadership from our mayors, the philanthropic community, the business community, the schools, and the community and technical colleges all singing from the same hymnal. That obviously has potential to change thousands of lives here in the Memphis region. It doesn’t mean it’s going to work; it just means if it’s ever going to work, this is the time.

The initiative featured here is related to work supported by the Brookings-Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation. Brookings recognizes that the value it provides is in its absolute commitment to quality, independence, and impact. Activities supported by its donors reflect this commitment and the analysis and recommendations are solely determined by the scholar.