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CTE Spotlight on Cross-Sector Partnership: Tennessee’s Rutherford Works

• Dr. Danielle Mezera

In today’s post, Dr. Danielle Mezera draws from ExcelinEd’s latest playbook series to spotlight a state Career and Technical Education (CTE) cross-sector partnership.

The five-playbook series will provide state education leaders and local employers a practical guide for improving the “education to career” pipelines in their states. Check out the first two playbooks, and stay tuned for new releases in the series!


Serious efforts to develop and strengthen Career and Technical Education (CTE) for secondary students share a common challenge: developing cross-sector partnerships among K-12 education, business and industry organizations and postsecondary institutions. These partnerships are vital to ensuring CTE programs are successful, however, they are not always easy to cultivate and sustain.

The Career and Technical Education (CTE) improvement process begins with identifying the intermediary who will spearhead the partnership initiatives. An intermediary is an organization (or dedicated person) at the state or local level whose role is to connect state/regional/local employers, K-12 education leaders and postsecondary institutions to develop and grow the “education to career” pipeline.

How an intermediary approaches this role is influenced heavily by how it sets and executes its (a) goals and (b) engagement of stakeholders to achieve those goals. In this realm, some are more successful than others in achieving this.

While examining the state and regional intermediaries interviewed for our second playbook, we noticed certain shared characteristics that are attributable to their success to date:

  • Focused approach to braid education and workforce priorities and interests to meet the larger needs of the community.
  • Formalized strategic process that includes goals, action steps and identified outcomes.
  • Recruitment of stakeholders with purposeful intent.
  • Established clear stakeholder roles and responsibilities, as well as time commitment, and the adherence to these—ensuring there is no “mission creep.”
  • Identified program quality indicators to measure progress toward goals, including indicators to measure stakeholder engagement.
  • Ongoing communications to keep stakeholders informed and engaged.

Intermediary Profile: Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce –Tennessee

Led by Beth Duffield, Senior Vice President of education and workforce development, Rutherford Works serves the immediate county and sub-region of southern middle Tennessee and focuses on bringing area “businesses and education partners together to collaborate on (a) closing skills gaps and (b) building the future of the workforce in the County.” The area’s key industries include advanced manufacturing, IT, health care, supply chain management and construction.

Presently, the area is experiencing notable growth in population and in new business and business relocation. While these can be viewed as positives, they can also quickly become problems if the area is unable to grow an educated, well-skilled workforce to meet the demands. As the leading intermediary, Rutherford Works, is at the apex of braiding the community’s education and workforce priorities and needs. Based on an interview conducted for our second CTE Playbook, the following profile spotlights the key characteristics that are making Rutherford Works so successful.

What lessons have Rutherford Works learned working with K-12 partners?

Education can be a struggle. Districts need to be willing to be at the table. They need to understand the significant role they play in the economics of the community. I don’t think it is a natural transition for school districts to make. When district leadership doesn’t see that, and/or they don’t make CTE a priority in their district plans, then it can be difficult. You have to lean on your employers to help sway the conversation appropriately.

Our actions have to mirror your words. Rutherford Works comes from the business side of things—not from education—so it’s about them learning to trust you by what they see you doing and accomplishing for their students and teachers. It’s also about them seeing that you listened to them and weren’t just nodding your head.

What lessons have Rutherford Works learned working with business and industry partners?

If you are the intermediary, you must have a formal process in place to lead your priorities and a process that ensures levels of accountability. If your process is informal and there are no mechanisms in place to execute the action plan or to collect data, employers are not going to engage. They are not going to give it their all. Formal processes are how employers do business on a daily basis; if they don’t, they won’t be in business for long.

When employers are shown what is happening, and how it can benefit them, they are more willing to engage. Of course, and perhaps more importantly, our structure has to be expansive enough to meet them where they are comfortable in engaging, particularly at the beginning.

What are Rutherford Works’ words of advice for other convening agencies or organizations?

Think about all partners in your community, not just your niche. Identify who are all of your resources to engage. Do all of this on the front-end. Deploy individuals who already have relationships in the community and are trusted. Going into a community as an unknown is a recipe for disaster.

Be sure to have your purpose statement and action plan built out at the beginning. Know what the community’s needs are and how they will be addressed. Know what and how you want to engage stakeholders in the process before you contact anyone. And when potential stakeholders are identified, be sure to meet [them] where they’re at – don’t shoehorn everyone into the same bucket when it comes to asks and level of asks. Any ask should be personalized to match your needs with the skills and needs of the stakeholder.

Lastly, there is no such thing as over communicating with your stakeholders. They want to be in the know. They want to understand how their involvement is making a difference and they want to see the potential impact on their company and on others.

View ExcelinEd’s playbook Building Cross-Sector Partnerships to Support Career and Technical Education Pathways for more information and access to a toolbox of materials that convening organizations have used in their efforts to forge and sustain cross-sector partnership.


View the CTE Playbook

About the author

Dr. Danielle Mezera

In March 2017, Danielle Mezera launched her boutique consulting firm, DCM Consulting, specializing in K-12 and postsecondary education and the intersection of these to inform strong education-to-career learning pathways. Prior to this, Mezera served as the Assistant Commissioner for College, Career and Technical Education for the Tennessee Department of Education. As Assistant Commissioner, Mezera oversaw CTE curricula, state-promoted early postsecondary course offerings, ACT/SAT, postsecondary matriculation initiatives, K-12 school counseling and work-based learning. She also served as state lead with Pathways to Prosperity Network and the J.P. Morgan Chase - New Skills for Youth grants. Prior to assuming her state role, Mezera served as chief education policy advisor for Mayor Purcell and Mayor Dean of Nashville-Davidson County. Before entering public service, Mezera served as a director at the Vanderbilt University Institute for Public Policy Studies. During her tenure at Vanderbilt University, Danielle held various senior level positions in administration. Mezera holds a B.A., M.Ed. and Ph.D. in education.