No one is sure how to fix an American education system that churns out workers who are unprepared for the U.S. labor market. But there is a near unanimous consensus that the business community needs to take a leadership role if the U.S. wants to maintain its competitive edge in the global economy.
``The ability to succeed in the 21st century is all about the race for human talent. That challenge will get harder and harder and harder if we don't fix the education problem,'' said Thomas J. Donahue, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Donahue spoke at the Education and Workforce Summit of the Institute for a Competitive Workforce in Washington last month.
``It doesn't matter how many workers are available if they are uneducated,'' said Donahue, pointing out that one-third of the K-12 students in the United States don't graduate from high school. ``We can't be competitive if that doesn't change. We have two serious problems: a shortage of workers and an underclass of people who can't operate in the work environment.
``Business must assume the mantle of leadership,'' he said. ``We have to work with governors on innovative ideas to improve education. We have to get a seat on school boards. We can't let unions and others make all the decisions.
``We need an integrated approach to education. We need to know where we are going to get our workers, short-term and long-term, how we are going to close the skills gap and what we are going to do about educating our students.''
The gap has led manufacturers to look again at their involvement in education.
``We are trying to get back into K-12 and beyond through initiatives with local school systems to make sure that the fundamentals are taught,'' said Robert Leber, director of education and workforce development at the Newport News (Va.) Apprentice School of Northrop Grumman, which designs and builds nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and is part of $30 billion Los Angeles-based defense contractor, Northrop Grumman Corp.
``Potential workers need to have basic high school skills to be trainable so we don't have to teach them math and reading skills,'' said Leber, adding that the existing workforce also has to be retrained to keep pace with changing demands, regardless of whether its workers have been in it ``one, five or 25 years.''
Similarly, Ford Motor Co. has replaced many of its previous education initiatives with the Ford Partnership for Advanced Studies, a 3-year-old initiative that involves 20,000 students in 23 states and is still growing. Ford PAS's objective is to give high school students interdisciplinary learning experiences that challenge them academically and develop their problem-solving, critical thinking, and communication skills through courses that link classroom learning with the challenges students will face in post-secondary education and the workplace of the future.
``We are making a big sweeping movement in where we are headed with our educational efforts,'' said Mike Schmidt, director of education and community development at the Ford Motor Co. Fund in Dearborn, Mich.
``Before the '90s, we focused on learning by doing. In the '90s, we prepared students for success in higher education and the workplace,'' Schmidt said. ``But the switch from a knowledge-based economy to a conceptual-based economy has forced us to take a step back and reassess what we are doing in education.
``Because innovation is the most important ingredient in the economy and companies have to see what customers have not yet imagined, we have to figure out how we get a workforce that can do this. We need to move to a 21st-century-skills framework and ask ourselves what are the skills that students need to succeed in a conceptual economy. We need to work hand-in-hand with local communities to transform learning.''
Fred Tipson, senior policy counsel with responsibility for all workforce development in the U.S. for Microsoft Corp., agreed.
To address the gaps that exist today in digital literacy, digital fluency and digital mastery, ``we need to define what these skill sets are and how we get people the training for that,'' Tipson said. ``We face a real crisis in the workforce if we don't address all these challenges.
``It is up to industry to take leadership and not wait for the government to define those skills and programs,'' Tipson said. ``We need to create a coalition of companies focused on skills training challenges, clarifying the skill sets required and developing ways people can get the training needed to acquire those skills.''
It also is critical that education initiatives involve all parties, said Schmidt.
``We can't do this alone,'' he said. ``We need to work with other businesses, local communities, community colleges and universities - anyone who will work with us, so we can leverage each other's success and determine what we need in our future workforce and what we need to do to make the community prosper and grow.''
``As leaders in the industry, we can no longer assume that there will always be people in the pipeline,'' said James Whaley, president of the Siemens Foundation in Iselin, N.J., which provides nearly $2 million in college scholarships and awards each year to high school students in the U.S. ``We need to do what is necessary to upgrade the skills of the workforce, their math and science competencies and their interpersonal skills.''
Without that commitment, the future is bleak, said Dan Christman, senior vice president of international affairs for the U.S. Chamber.
``There are few things more important than education in terms of keeping a company competitive in this tough global economy,'' he said. ``There is no muddling possible. We win if we bring to the fight an educated workforce. If we don't, we lose.''
Ray Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association in Washington, concurred. ``Innovation is the only way we will make this country competitive,'' he said. ``If we don't have the best and most innovative workforce, we will experience a decline in real wages, real income and in the economy.''