The Conversation About America's Skills Gap Is Changing


Business-educational partnerships are focusing on teaching the skills needed for in-demand jobs.

America has people without jobs, but it also has jobs without people – about 5.6 million of them. Why can't those jobs be filled? Because job candidates lack the required skills. We call this situation the skills gap. With millions of Americans unemployed – and millions of open jobs – the business community is taking the initiative to close this skills gap.

Traditionally, the private sector has been just one of many stakeholders in education – just a voice among many. Employers are increasingly frustrated at the lack of capable job applicants to fill good-paying positions. And since the business community is the primary customer of our education system, it only makes sense that businesses play a leadership role in partnering with educational institutions to ensure that students learn the skills needed in today's workplace.

For the past year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and USA Funds have partnered on a pilot program designed to close the skills gap. The initiative, called Talent Pipeline Management, was developed to put the business community in the so-called driver's seat of education partnerships. The program was adapted from lessons learned in supply chain management and incorporated into developing qualified talent that's ready to hit the ground running on Day One.

This concept intrigued many businesses, chambers of commerce and economic development organizations that wanted to try out this approach. Over the last year, we've been working with seven communities across the country to pilot Talent Pipeline Management strategies, and employers are truly engaging and innovating like never before.

The Michigan Energy Workforce Development Consortium, a partnership between industry and educators, has defined the attributes its employers need. The partnership is sharing this information with educators and career counselors so they can make students aware of potential job opportunities, what courses they need and what pathways exist to get from school to work.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced the state's first competitive matching grants to encourage and reward employers that work together to build an educated and trained workforce. In particular, Virginia is seeking to fill jobs in the fast-growing scientific, technical and heath care sectors.

The Arizona Chamber Foundation is using the talent pipeline management principles to focus on improving teacher quality and addressing teacher shortages that threaten the state's ability to deliver quality education. By working with school districts, the Arizona Chamber Foundation plans to identify top-notch sources of teacher talent and pursue new or alternative sources of supply to better meet the need.

Strategic education partnerships with the business community are critical to align systems in ways that promote successful students, a skilled workforce and a stronger economy. 

Employers in Illinois are coming together to discuss common hiring needs and create an online tool to collect employer-demand data in real time. Meanwhile, Kentucky is using the initiative to create a community college course to give students the critical competencies needed to enter a career in manufacturing.

Our partners in Houston are creating stronger ties between employers and training programs for their petrochemical and construction sectors. In Kansas, government agencies, businesses and community colleges are building training programs that give students in-demand training skills in growing sectors such as information technology.

These programs are just a sampling of the work that is being done on the ground to change the skills gap conversation from one that is demand driven to one that's employer-led. Groups such as the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers are working with their business members to identify the credentials and skills that help prepare students for careers in growing industries.

Employers like JPMorgan Chase and Siemens are investing in new public-private partnerships to elevate and enhance career and technical education and scale up apprenticeships and other high quality, work-based learning. These are just a few examples of the many ways that the employer community is stepping up to help close the skills gap.

Strategic education partnerships with the business community are critical to align systems in ways that promote successful students, a skilled workforce and a stronger economy. In the great American tradition, business, civic and education leaders are working together at the state and local levels to devise innovative solutions, solve problems and get things done. It's American know-how in action – and it's working.

This op-ed originally appeared in U.S. News & World Report.


Thomas J. Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

William D. Hansen is president and CEO of USA Funds.