Action Required Today for Success Tomorrow

September 11, 2012

By Ed Rust

As millions struggle to find work, millions of jobs go unfilled because applicants lack the skills or knowledge required in today’s world of work. The consequences of this growing skills gap are becoming readily apparent. Whether we respond constructively to these realities, or fail to act, the consequences are real and closer than they appear.

“A Nation at Risk,” the 1983 report published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, stated, “What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”

Indeed, an escalating number of students in other countries are completing high school with the necessary skills to immediately enter the workforce or pursue higher levels of education. Countries previously considered to be emerging economies have overtaken us in terms of the percentage of young people entering the workforce with the skills to be productive and competitive in today’s rapidly evolving global economy.

Studies find on average that young Americans entering the workforce are not as well prepared academically as older Americans who are approaching retirement. While some baby boomers may be delaying retirement because of current economic issues, an estimated 40% of the current workforce is expected to turnover in the next five years.

Clearly, we are facing an enormous skills gap in our workforce, more pronounced than any of us have seen in our lifetimes. Fortunately, the problem is not without remedy. There are schools developing solid records of change and success as they focus on academic standards, assessments, and accountability surrounded by truly professional teacher development.

We must be “all-in,” working together to provide a world-class, competitive system of education through a multifaceted approach. Yet time is not on our side. We must act, and act now to expand on these pockets of success. As a nation, we must take steps to close the gaps in the academic performance of tomorrow’s leaders and workers while not slowing our future growth or causing harm to the overall economy or society.

“A Nation at Risk” emphasized that “history is not kind to idlers.” Wise words. As business leaders, we must not be timid. We must make our voices heard. We must draw the clear connection between education and the world of work. We must partner with public officials and education leaders across the country. We must step forward through collaboration and shared learning. We must be engaged in the effort, providing critical support as tough but necessary change is implemented.

Each of these topics—education, jobs, the economy, and the growing skills gap—is often viewed as an independent issue. As business leaders, we know they are clearly interrelated. If we are not successful in closing the skills gap, the population of skilled labor necessary to function in a 21st-century economy will dwindle, our economic strength will decline, and future opportunities will dim. It is only when we help others see how all the pieces are connected that we will begin to scale meaningful solutions to these problems in the years to come. Business leaders must take their critical seat at the table.

On September 20, the Institute for a Competitive Workforce will hold an event titled, "Help Wanted: Addressing the Skills Gap" to discuss these issues and more. To register, please visit the event webpage.

Edward B. Rust, Jr. is Chairman of the Board at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Chief Executive Officer of State Farm Insurance.