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The jobs are there, the education is not

Thursday, September 20, 2012 - 8:00pm

USA Today

By Margaret Spellings

The latest job reports are, yet again, disappointing. Unemployment is at 8.1% — which translates to 12.5 million Americans looking for work, and an additional 2.6 million who have simply given up trying. Yet, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.7 million employers across the United States still have "Help Wanted" signs posted looking for qualified workers. ManpowerGroup reports that 49% of employers are having difficulty hiring — particularly in math and science, high tech jobs, manufacturing and mechanics.

This disparity has come to be known as the "skills gap" — the divide between the jobs American businesses need to fill and the jobs Americans are qualified to do. Research shows that approximately 90% of the jobs in the fastest-growing occupations in our economy require some level of postsecondary education and training. And 80 million to 90 million adults today — about half of our current workforce — do not have the skills needed to acquire or advance in jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage. Where once we had a significant advantage in the global economy, our nation is quickly falling back to the pack and is growing increasingly unable to compete with nations such as China, Canada, Germany, India, and Korea.

We can't compete with a K-12 education system where half of African-American males and 42% of Hispanic males fail to graduate from high school on time. As a direct result, African Americans and Hispanics are suffering from unemployment rates of 14.1% and 10.2% respectively.

We can't compete when the average college graduate is saddled with a nearly $23,000 tab for postsecondary education and, in many cases, doesn't have relevant skills to show for it.

We can't compete with a scattered approach to workforce development that is poorly informed by real data about where the jobs are, what credentials and skills those jobs require, and without educational institutions that are responsive to specific workforce needs.

And we can't compete without a cultural shift that emphasizes the need for lifelong learning. Even for the highly educated, upgrading skills throughout one's career is now a necessity.

We need to start the process by having a robust conversation among business leaders, policymakers, and innovative education nonprofits about addressing the skills gap and keeping America competitive in the global economy.

As a nation, we rightly point to education as critical for addressing the skills gap. The competitive global economy moves fast and shifts quickly. We've got to become more nimble and flexible. To get there, we need a seismic shift in K-12 education, postsecondary opportunities, and workforce development supported by new partnerships between business and education that work towards realigning the pipeline from student to worker.

There was a time when the United States was the undisputed economic leader of the world and fueled the greatest innovations in history. We need to learn from that history. Innovators scrutinize the behavior of their customers to develop a deep understanding of needs. Innovators tirelessly try out new ideas. The great ones aren't afraid to experiment. They are outcome-focused and ambitious about finding what works — and they shift and adjust when they find something isn't working. Innovators thrive on competition. They go out of their way to get diverse perspectives, to learn from other fields, to be open to change, and to attract the best and brightest.

Now we need these principles of innovation to guide our workforce development along the whole continuum — from kindergarten through retirement.

It has been said time and again that our education system is "a system that works for the system." It's time that it starts working for our kids. Our goal is to promote strategies for eliminating achievement gaps and for raising the bar for high achievers that are informed by the needs of students, families, business, and communities.

In the United States, one of our greatest strengths is our deep conviction that with an education and a dream, every American can make his or her own success. Today, that ambition isn't enough. If we are going to close the skills gap and cultivate the next generation of American success stories, we must invest, innovate, and tap the intellect and ideas of every possible sector to do it.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is president of the Forum for Policy Innovation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Thursday she participated in the chamber's Institute for a Competitive Workforce (ICW) Help Wanted forum.