Taking Action on Education

October 7, 2013

A skilled, prepared workforce is the cornerstone of economic competitiveness. Yet, by many measures, the United States is failing to develop the talent that U.S. businesses need to compete in the modern global economy. For instance, according to a Business Roundtable survey of its members, more than 95 percent of CEOs indicated that their companies suffer from skills shortages. This skills shortage is reflected in the broader U.S. labor market, as there are more than 3.9 million U.S. job openings, yet more than 11 million U.S. workers remain unemployed. These data points are indicative of an alarming trend: There is a persistent and growing mismatch between the skills that U.S. workers possess and the skills that U.S. businesses need. The long-term negative impacts of this “skills gap” on workers, families, businesses, governments and the economy are potentially profound and far reaching.

A nation’s capacity to develop a skilled, prepared workforce is inextricably linked to the quality of its education system. In the United States, however, disturbing gaps persist in these areas as well. Domestically, there are significant gaps in student achievement and educational attainment across a range of socioeconomic groups. Internationally, the United States continues to lag behind its peers in terms of student performance in mathematics, science and reading. To be clear, the U.S. education system is not getting worse — indeed, evidence suggests that it is improving. It is, however, failing to keep pace with both the demands of the modern global economy and the improvements observed in other nations.

The good news is that larger, faster improvements in U.S. education are within our reach. Many states have experienced K–12 achievement gains that are two to three times greater than other states, and a growing number of postsecondary institutions, from technical schools to universities, are preparing students of all ages and levels of experience for successful careers at an affordable cost. Unfortunately, these success stories tend to be the exceptions and not the rule. To realize more widespread progress, leaders at all levels — policymakers, business executives, school administrators, teachers and parents — will need to embrace and advance new ideas about what, when, where and how we teach and learn.

Accordingly, the CEOs of the Business Roundtable believe that it is time to take action on education and workforce training. As an association of more than 200 leading U.S. companies with more than 16 million employees, the Business Roundtable is acutely aware of the importance of a skilled, prepared workforce to the competitiveness of U.S. businesses and the U.S. economy. We believe that building America’s capacity to effectively develop “homegrown” talent is one of the most important challenges of our time. We believe that achieving larger, faster improvements in U.S. education and talent development is not only possible, but also urgent and imperative.

With those considerations in mind, Taking Action on Education and Workforce Preparedness presents a practical, forward-leaning plan to equip the U.S. workforce with the skills needed to compete and succeed in the 21st century. The report draws on interviews with more than 30 recognized experts in the fields of education and workforce development regarding what policymakers, business executives, school administrators, teachers, parents and other key stakeholders can do to ensure that all Americans are ready to work and prepared to succeed. Incorporating these ideas, as well as the unique perspectives offered by member CEOs, the Business Roundtable identified five priorities for building a skilled and prepared workforce:

  1. Fully adopt and implement the Common Core State Standards;
  2. Encourage students to study and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields;
  3. Develop more effective teachers;
  4. Expand access to high-quality early learning programs; and
  5. Ensure that postsecondary education and workforce training programs align with employer needs.

Systemic problems demand systemic solutions. As a practical matter, however, the Business Roundtable recognizes that institutions and policies can be slow to change. Accordingly, our recommendations in each priority area include both incremental, short-term solutions that will move the system forward and systemic, long-term solutions that will gradually transform the way in which we teach and learn. By driving both incremental and systemic change, the United States can increase educational achievement, improve college and career readiness, and expand the nation’s capacity to develop the homegrown talent that it needs to compete and win in the modern global economy.