Education and Workforce Making Work Work


Last week I had the chance to join conservative policy experts and leaders, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, at a summit to discuss how to bolster economic mobility for Americans.

The business community knows that if Americans cannot succeed, our companies cannot succeed. In our view, shared success is the path forward for employees and employers. So how do we break the poverty trap and create the upward mobility that will lead to shared success? I think Speaker Ryan had it right with what he called the G + S = P equation. Translation: Growth plus Skills equals Prosperity.

I want to focus on the skills part of the equation. If people don’t possess the skills they need to get into the workforce or upgrade their skills so they can stay there over the long haul, achieving success and prosperity will be nearly impossible.

Work works, as Speaker Ryan said. So how do we get people the skills they need to get them on and keep them on the career ladder?

First, let’s make sure what we are doing today is producing results. Each year, $650 billion is spent on the K-12 education system in America. We can start by making sure America is getting a full return on that major investment.

If literacy proficiency at the end of third grade is any measure — and the experts confirm that it is — then we are not getting all we should out of the investments we are making in our K-12 education system. Only 36 percent of U.S. students are proficient in reading at the end of third grade — that’s a failing grade for all of us. America can and must teach its kids to read.

Second, we should disabuse ourselves of the belief that four-year college is the sure bet to get the skills needed for careers. Somewhere along the way many have forgotten about vocational training — career technical education — and settled on a firm belief that everyone has to go to college if they are to achieve career success. That is just not the case.

There is a multitude of skills and training programs out there through which individuals can obtain the credentials they need to get on and move up the career ladder. If anything, there are so many programs that it is hard to know which ones to recommend. That’s why Business Roundtable, which co-hosted the summit this week, has been working with Lumina Foundation and others on Credential Engine, an innovative effort to help individuals sort through all the offerings out there by making credentials more meaningful and easier to understand for employers, employees and learners alike.

And that brings me to my third point — and where the conversation started at this week’s summit: the leading role the business community must play to ensure more Americans get on the path to success. We already do a lot — companies spend about $58 billion on employee training each year — but we can and must do more.

The skills gaps that exist today in the U.S. workforce — which more than 95 percent of Business Roundtable CEOs report are a problem for their companies and industries — will only grow worse as more baby boomers retire and take their decades of experience and knowledge with them.

Let’s look at the small manufacturers Speaker Ryan spoke about — the 75-employee companies that are competing in the global marketplace. Let’s inventory the skills those workers need to compete globally and make sure we are making it possible for the next-generation worker to obtain them and have a pathway to keep them up-to-date.

And let’s measure the results of our efforts. Let’s figure out what works so that we can replicate success and get a quantum leap in performance. Let’s really put a premium on doubling down on what works.

Americans want to succeed. The business community wants them to succeed. Shared success starts with the right skills and training. That is what will lead to higher wages and break the cycle of poverty. We all have a role to play — the public and private sectors. Let’s get to work.