Spanning the Continuum: Pre-K to Workforce

We hear it every day: ‘The success or failure of our education system directly correlates to the success or failure of the U.S. economy.’ We know that learning and mastering essential skills, such as writing and mathematics, in Pre-K to 12 and postsecondary schooling is crucial to landing a job and excelling in the workforce. Yet, it’s also known that American public schools are failing across the board.

Proving this, the 2011 NAEP scores, which were released earlier this month, illustrate that “only about one-quarter of 8th and 12th graders performed at the ‘proficient’ level or higher.” That means approximately 75% of 8th and 12th grade students are performing at the ‘basic’ level of competency, or worse. Although achieving ‘basic’ level performance signifies the student is likely to graduate, it in no way means that the student is equipped with the skills necessary to be successful in the workforce.

The good news is, there is no shortage of think tanks, nonprofits, and foundations dedicated to student achievement. At the Institute for a Competitive Workforce (ICW), a nonprofit affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, conversations address how to solve the myriad of obstacles affecting education, training, and the workforce. American companies and businesses invest a combined $4 billion annually in education and are working alongside communities to address their respective issues. Whether it’s low-income students at poorly-resourced schools, unacceptable preparation for college and the workforce, or school governance challenges, ICW believes that the involvement of individual businesses in education is the best approach to implementing systemic and lasting reform.

ICW’s newest initiative is doing just that. Breaking the Monopoly of Mediocrity is bringing focus to the need to challenge the status quo. It has been said time and again that our education system is “a system that works for the system;” it’s time that it starts working for our kids. Our goal is to use information provided by students, families, businesses, and communities to promote strategies for eliminating achievement gaps and raise all students to higher standards. As part of the initiative, ICW is hosting an interactive, cross-country tour to inspire business leaders, educators, and community leaders to become catalysts for change at the local and state levels.

The discrepancy between education and mastering the skills required to enter the workforce, or the ‘skills gap,’ poses a serious hindrance to the strength of U.S. businesses and the economy. Currently, there are more than 3 million jobs that are left unfilled because employers cannot find qualified personnel to fit the positions. If this continues, the consequences will be dire; the U.S. will no longer have a competitive edge over emerging countries, and businesses will begin, or in some cases will continue, to look outside the U.S. for employees who can get the job done effectively and efficiently.

Last week, ICW hosted a forum titled Help Wanted, which invited business, policy, and education reform leaders from across the nation to discuss the severity of the skills gap and potential solutions to these educational discrepancies.

To wrap up the Help Wanted event, Boeing executive Richard ‘Rick’ Stephens asked the audience what they believe to be the most effective ways to address the skills gap dilemma. Fourteen programs and practices were suggested, dissected, and voted upon. The most popular solutions discussed were:

  • Focusing higher education resources on job needs, student capabilities—either in federal or state funding, to incentivize higher education to offer programs in high-demand industries
  • Industries defining job needs by competencies and not job title by which employers specify a goal, not a pathway, to offer more flexibility for how employees attain those required competencies
  • Increasing the use of career academies and partnerships between schools and businesses

It’s difficult to talk about workforce training without talking about higher education. It’s difficult to talk about higher education without talking about K–12 education. Building skills and gaining competencies should be part of a lifelong continuum, starting with education at a young age and continuing throughout time in the workforce. In order maintain global economic competiveness, the skills gap is an issue that needs to be addressed and solved immediately.