Workforce Readiness Requires Collaboration Between Business and Education

August 6, 2018

4 minutes

On July 19, President Trump signed an executive order to prioritize workforce development and readiness in the United States.

The president deserves credit for calling attention to the widening gap between the skill demands of 21st-century employers and the preparedness of graduates from American high schools, colleges and universities.

My colleagues and I regularly conduct roundtables with entrepreneurs around the country to hear first-hand their concerns, challenges and priorities. A message we hear everywhere is: “We can’t find enough people with the skills we need.”

But, as currently structured, the administration’s plan lacks a critical component for success. Driven principally by a panel of administration officials, the initiative risks the same error of previous education and training reform efforts, bypassing the unique insights and expertise of the real experts: business and education practitioners.

The “skills gap” is one of the most significant obstacles to the long-term productive capacity of the U.S. economy.  A survey of 500 hiring managers, human resource specialists and business executives conducted in January 2017 found only 11 percent of U.S. employers think higher education is “very effective” in readying graduates to meet the skills needs of their organizations.

Respondents reported that nearly two-thirds of American students graduate unprepared for the requirements of 21st-century employment.

The president’s plan establishes the National Council for the American Worker, a body composed of senior administration officials tasked with developing a national strategy for training workers for high-demand industries, using data to connect workers to businesses and educational institutions and launching a nationwide campaign to promote careers in the skilled trades, technology and manufacturing.

The executive order also forms an advisory board of leaders from the private sector, educational institutions, philanthropic organizations and state governments.

But the purpose of the advisory board is merely to “work with the Administration to implement results-driven job-training programs in classrooms and workplaces across the country,” according to a recent op-ed by Ivanka Trump.

This approach puts the cart before the horse. A national strategy for workforce readiness — one that pinpoints relevant problems and obstacles and devises workable solutions — must be co-developed by the people who educate and train American workers and those who will hopefully hire them, not by senior administration officials.

Policymakers can and should work with business and education leaders to implement the national strategy, once the practitioners have done their critical work.

With this in mind, the president should direct the Department of Commerce and the Department of Education to immediately establish the U.S. Business-Education Workforce Dialogue — a framework of ongoing collaboration between business and education leaders to examine kindergarten through university curricula to ensure the nation’s education system serves the needs of American students and the requirements of 21st-century businesses.

The dialogue should include educators at K-12 schools, community and vocational colleges and universities, as well as leaders of multinational corporations, regionally active firms, small businesses and young startups.

Dialogue participants should meet on a regular basis — at least semi-annually — in pursuit of a robust and specific agenda, facilitated by a dedicated staff.

Importantly, the departments should neither set the agenda for the dialogue nor seek to predetermine its outcomes. Rather, the administration’s role should be to establish, facilitate and encourage the dialogue, allowing business and education leaders to identify the relevant issues and, working together, develop and implement effective solutions, with the help of policymakers.

A particular focus of the dialogue should be to better leverage the value of the nation’s 1,200 community colleges. Whether serving as an educational “on-ramp” for first-generation college-goers or low-wage/low-skill adults, offering cutting-edge occupational training or working with businesses to provide continuing education and training for their employees, community colleges are the natural backbone of a national workforce readiness strategy.

At its best, the dialogue should seek to make employers fully integrated partners with American schools, colleges and universities in producing both a highly educated and appropriately trained, “ready-on-day-one” workforce.

Employers should not only communicate their skill needs to educators, but also provide business community input into curricula determinations, help set aptitude standards, develop apprenticeship programs and work/study arrangements and encourage active business professionals and other practitioners to serve as teachers, instructors, assistants, advisers and mentors.

In addition to enhancing workforce readiness, this kind of active collaboration would likely produce substantial savings for U.S. businesses, which spend more than $175 billion each year on formal education and training and an additional $415 billion annually on informal on-the-job training, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

No domestic policy priority is more important than ensuring that the nation’s education system effectively prepares our citizens for the challenges and opportunities of an ever-changing and increasingly competitive 21st-century global economy.

The administration can contribute most effectively to that objective by establishing a framework for unprecedented dialogue and collaboration between the nation’s education institutions and business community — and then allowing the practitioners to deliver the national education and training strategy American workers need and deserve.

John Dearie is the president of the Center for American Entrepreneurship.

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