Winning the Future Means Closing the Skills Gap

In his State of the Union address, President Obama outlined a plan for the United States to win the future through better education, smarter innovation and broader investment. He would have done well to invoke another favorite phrase--"the fierce urgency of now", itself borrowed from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.--to bolster his case.

That urgency was imprinted in black and white, quite literally, the next morning. As the day-after analysis of the speech occupied front pages of newspapers across the country, readers needed only flip to page 2 for a reality check. "National science test scores disappoint," announced one headline. "Less than half of students proficient in science", proclaimed another. The newest report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as "the nation's report card", was but the latest in a litany of sobering findings suggesting today's generation of young Americans is fully unprepared for the challenges of tomorrow.

How, indeed, will we seize our future and out-compete the rest of the world in scientific and technological advances when just one-third of American 8th graders and barely one in five high school seniors are deemed "proficient" in science? How will we out-innovate our global peers in creative pursuits when today's American 15-year-olds rank 17th internationally in reading comprehension and 31st in math? And--worse still--when a quarter of our students won't finish high school on time, if at all?

These are questions that vex many of the forward-thinking business executives we work with at Corporate Voices for Working Families, the leading national business membership organization shaping conversations and collaborations on policy issues involving working families. Employers are certainly not alone in the collective hand-wringing, but they possess a unique perspective on the skills and knowledge young people need to succeed in the labor market today and the workforce of tomorrow.

Our work at Corporate Voices reflects this perspective, and the recognition that employers can and must be active partners in preparing the talent pool of skilled employees. One important way to do so is to invest in their continuing education and training through "learn and earn" initiatives--programs offering lower-skilled workers in particular the opportunity to pursue higher education and post-secondary credentials while earning a living at the same time. The need is critical: Of the 47 million jobs projected to be created in the U.S. by 2018, some 30 million will require at least some post-secondary education. Those jobs will simply be out of reach for too many young Americans unless they are able to negotiate the demands of school and work.

In a new publication, "From an 'Ill-Prepared' to a Well-Prepared Workforce: The Shared Imperatives for Employers and Community Colleges to Collaborate," we explore innovative partnerships between the business sector and community colleges. We highlight the most successful practices in these 'learn and earn' programs, and recommend a set of public and private policies to support their growth and replication.

Such business-college partnerships are one tiny but promising strategy in support of the ambitious domestic agenda President Obama imagined once again last week. To win the future in a vastly different global landscape of tomorrow, we've got to start today--and investing in the best-educated workforce we're capable of producing is a fine place to start.