Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, the 2014 Council of State Governments national chair and a 2002 CSG Toll Fellow, selected “State Pathways to Prosperity” as his chair’s initiative. He believes states can play a role in helping to ensure residents have the necessary skills to fill the jobs. The initiative focuses not only on education, but also on other issue that might affect an individual’s ability to work.

By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor

Why did you choose State Pathways to Prosperity as your initiative?

“We all want to see improvement in the quality of life in our states. State Pathways is CSG’s workforce development and education initiative designed to facilitate that objective. Workforce development and relevant education present, at once, the greatest challenges, as well as opportunities, of our time.

“I wanted CSG to continue to be part of the effort already underway across the country to amass a ready workforce equipped with a relevant education to embrace the advanced manufacturing opportunities now returning to our shores. In short, to be an active participant in the nationwide effort to close the skills gap standing between too many of our citizens and opportunities for meaningful employment.

“I chose State Pathways because so much was already being done to analyze the skills gap, but not enough was being done to close it. Rather than reinvent the wheel with some other initiative, I thought it best to put our shoulder to the same wheel as (the National Governors Association) and others in an effort to promote solutions.”

Why is it important to include military and veterans’ issues, criminal justice, hunger and nutrition, and children’s issues in this discussion?

“It’s important because ‘life happens’ and, sometimes, interferes. Hunger, for example, subtly but insidiously intervenes. Hungry children don’t learn as well; hungry parents don’t perform well.

“Ex-felons, nonviolent ex-offenders, represent a ready workforce amounting to hundreds of thousands who could relatively quickly join the workforce but for their infraction.

“Veterans are often the most highly skilled and trained workforce we have. But for the lack of a conventional certificate or degree, these individuals could readily assume responsibility for seizing the opportunities afforded by the emerging economy.

“Each of these issues present special challenges, and sometimes opportunities, to educators, guidance counselors, recruiters, developers and human resource professionals. They are integral to the kind of comprehensive approach that must be taken in order to succeed.”



It’s been said that, too often, state agencies work in silos, but the discussions thus far this year have linked everything from education to transportation as impacting workforce development. Do you hope this effort will shed light on the need for more interaction among agencies and departments for state policymakers?

“Absolutely. We can facilitate the type of ‘dot-connecting’ that does just that. In Tennessee, I introduced LEAP—the Labor Education Alignment Program—to align our departments of Labor and Workforce Development, Higher Education and Economic Development for that very reason. Don’t assume that your departments are interacting effectively. Incentivize them to do so. There is a lot to be said for the success that comes from leveraging existing resources.

You mention connecting the dots and one element is veterans’ issues. What is it about military service that provides what is often an even better preparation for civilian jobs?

“Today’s veteran is highly trained and practically experienced in so many specialized skills that are in high demand. Military service not only provides such training and experience, but it does so in an environment that instills discipline, pride and an invaluable work ethic.”

What can state leaders do from a public policy perspective that can have the most impact on hunger in their states?

“First, state leaders can become informed. Understanding food insecurity, its interrelationships with nutrition, health, education and employment, is critical. Second, create a forum for disseminating what you learn and for learning more. In Tennessee, we organized a Nutrition Caucus. It provides a framework and a forum for food banks, professional dieticians and nutritionists, private sector participants, policymakers and others to work together in crafting solutions. Third, encourage your colleagues and others to volunteer to help local food banks, farmers markets and organizations like the YMCA, Catholic Charities and local schools, many of which are already working to alleviate or eliminate food insecurity in our communities.”

Have states not typically looked long-term in the understanding of state prosperity—whether it is for government services or serving the current and future workforces?

“States may look long-term, but, too often, they look through the wrong lens. To mix metaphors, they think they’re ‘skating to the puck,’ but they need to be skating to where the puck will be rather than where they think it is. CSG is working to harness and translate the data that drives governments’ ability to focus on the right future.”

What do you hope will come from this effort for providing answers to state policymakers?

“Generally, a stronger economy, including a skilled, national workforce, declining unemployment and increasing gross domestic product. Specifically, a sustainable CSG workforce development and education program of use and benefit to state and local governments. Not only one that is content rich for teaching purposes—seminars, best practices and the like—but one that (also) provides cost-saving services to state and local governments as well as individual policymakers.”

What is the ultimate goal for the initiative and when will you know it has had some impact?

“We know that our programming has already had some impact. Other legislative organizations are following CSG’s lead, replicating our programming to some extent, but we (also) are attracting private funding to take this to the next level. The ultimate impact won’t be certain for some time, but it’s hard to see history in the making when you’re in the midst of making it. Whether the United States rises to the challenge and fully embraces the manufacturing renaissance now underway remains to be seen. I suspect we will, and CSG will be an important player in it.”

Multiple stakeholders are involved in this effort. What will be necessary to maintain that long-term interest and involvement?

“Accurate data. Useful metrics to measure success. And success itself. States compete for jobs and governments compete for scarce resources needed to drive economic opportunity. Those that understand this and are able to maximize the right opportunities will maintain it. Those that don’t will falter. In other words, it’s in everyone’s best interest to maintain a long-term commitment to building the best workforce in the world.”

How can state policymakers across the country help to ensure this effort is successful?

“Get involved. Ask the hard questions. See to it that your curricula are relevant and institutions of higher learning are properly incentivized and funded to graduate citizens with the aptitude, attitude and skills necessary to work, earn and learn in the 21st century.”

When you reflect on your year as CSG chair, what would you want your legacy to be?

“As I’ve often said this year, history in the making is hard to see when you’re in the midst of making it. I would like to think that, one day, others will recognize this as a time of great transition, not only for state governments, but (also) for organizations like CSG that serve them; a time when states stepped up to the challenge our Founders actually foresaw 238 years ago by overcoming the dysfunction in (Washington,) D.C. States, not Washington, will preserve the union, and CSG will have played a significant role in making it possible.”

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