Keynote Address by
THOMAS J. DONOHUE
President & CEO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
As prepared for delivery
August 25, 2016
New Orleans, Louisiana
Thank you, Diane [Thornton], for that kind introduction.
I’d also like to thank Chief Scout Executive, Mike Surbaugh, for his leadership and the strong vision he outlined in his remarks this morning. And let me recognize my friend, Willie Iles—he does a terrific job representing the Scouts in Washington.
It’s an honor to be here with all of you in New Orleans—a city that overcame the devastation of Katrina and emerged stronger and more vibrant than ever.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the terrible struggle that the people of South Louisiana now find themselves in. They face the long and daunting task of rebuilding their homes, their businesses, and their lives after the catastrophic flooding earlier this month. I hope that they’ll look to the great city of New Orleans and find a little inspiration, encouragement, and hope.
Our nation must rally around these communities. We must give them our support, our time and resources, and our money. And the U.S. Chamber, the Boy Scouts, and our affiliates at the local level should be on the front lines.
For our part, the U.S. Chamber has made a donation to the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry to aid in recovery efforts. Our Corporate Citizenship Center’s Disaster Help Desk is also providing tools, resources, and advice to small businesses that have been impacted by the tragedy. Thousands of companies are donating material, equipment, and time to relief efforts. And I know that the Scouts have also mobilized volunteers and are collecting donations.
Helping communities in their hour of need is just one of many things the Boy Scouts and the U.S. Chamber have in common.
We have strong brands, good reputations, and reach into virtually every community in the country. We are values-based institutions that have a shared mission of helping the country succeed—and we’ve both been at it for more than 100 years!
The U.S. Chamber is dedicated to advancing the free enterprise system. It’s the greatest economic system ever devised, generating more wealth, more opportunity, and more jobs than any other in history. The Boy Scouts are dedicated to teaching young people how to live their lives with integrity, good morals, and a sense of civic duty and service.
We both stand for the values of individual initiative, personal responsibility, and a willingness to try something new and take a risk.
And we share a commitment to helping Americans lead productive and successful lives—I’ll say more on that in a minute.
But first, I want to tell you a little about what the Boy Scouts have done for me.
The character and leadership skills I learned as a Boy Scout—and then as an Eagle Scout—have served me well throughout my life. Scouting taught me discipline, duty, honor, and teamwork. It gave me confidence to take on tough challenges and, of course, it taught me to always be prepared.
To this day, I am still applying the lessons and the skills I learned both as a Scout and as a young adult whose very first job was as a Scouting Executive. In my early 20s I was given the opportunity to help build and run one of the largest Boy Scout Camps in the country. I faced the daily challenge of feeding 1500 Scouts and managing 115 workers. It was a crash course in logistics, leadership, communications, dealing with the unexpected, and good old fashioned hard work. And it’s not unlike the challenges I face leading the world’s largest business organization today.
Whatever measure of success I may have, I can draw a direct line to my experiences in the Boy Scouts of America. Millions of other men will tell you the same thing. That includes all three of my sons—they’re all Eagle Scouts and they’ve all had success in life and work because of it.
Ladies and gentlemen, what I want to tell you today is that the leadership and the values of the Boy Scouts are needed more than ever to help solve some of our nation’s great challenges.
I could list a dozen different ways Scouts will help shape the future of this country. But today, I’ll focus on just one—and that’s ensuring that the next generation of Americans have the skills, experience, and character to succeed in the workforce and achieve their dreams.
Through programs like Exploring and partnerships with key stakeholders, including the business community, the Boy Scouts are meeting this challenge head on with characteristic focus and determination.
The Youth Unemployment Challenge
What does this challenge look like?
If you think about it, generations of Americans have counted on a basic bargain: if you work hard, get a decent education, take a few risks, and stick it out when things get hard, you can build a good career. It was a foregone conclusion. You could bet the farm on it.
But today, too many of our young people wonder if the American Dream is still available to them. Some question whether they’ll have the chance to make it, whether opportunity really is limitless these days.
And who can blame them? This is a tough time to be a young man or woman entering the workforce.
Thanks in large part to some bad policies and poor decisions by our nation’s leaders, our economy is hobbling along at less than 2% growth—operating in this environment is an uphill climb for businesses, making it harder to meet payroll and create new jobs.
Meanwhile, the youth unemployment rate is nearly double the national unemployment rate. More than five million Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 are out of work and out of school—and they’re at risk of being shut out of our economy.
Why? For one thing, our education system is failing to adequately prepare U.S. students for life after high school. National assessments show that only 25% of U.S. high school seniors are proficient in math, and just 37% are proficient in reading. They’re not building a basic foundation of skills.
Consequently, more than half of college freshman find themselves in remedial courses.
Now, those who are able to earn a college degree have a decent shot at success—our universities are among the best in the world.
But many of them will leave college drowning in debt and struggling to pay the bills. The underemployment rate for recent college graduates with a bachelor’s degree has been climbing steadily for years.
And then there are those who slip through the cracks altogether—those who don’t graduate from high school … those who don’t find a career path. The sad reality is that many of them will face a lifetime of hardship. Studies show that they are more likely to suffer long-term joblessness, poverty, health problems, substance abuse, and incarceration. And they’ll miss out on the opportunity to contribute to a growing, competitive economy—and that impacts all of us.
The Urban Alliances estimates that every young adult who drops out of the economy will cost the country more than $700,000 in his or her lifetime. How? By failing to contribute to economic growth and pay taxes, as well as pushing government spending higher on aid programs.
Yet, even as unemployment and underemployment among young Americans continue to rise, many businesses face workforce shortages. We call this the “skills gap”—in other words, we have people without jobs, and jobs without people. In fact, nearly 6 million jobs sit vacant because employers can’t find workers with the right skills and qualifications to fill them.
So we’ve got to figure out how to match up those people that need good jobs with the jobs that need good people.
We need to give all young Americans the skills they need to succeed, and the chance to realize their potential and put it to work in this economy. If they are given the right tools and opportunities, they can be productive members of society and pursue their dreams. They can become the qualified candidates employers are seeking. And they can help form the foundation of a modern, competitive, and diverse workforce that will drive long-term prosperity for our country.
Private Sector Solutions
So, how do we do it?
Some will tell you that preparing young people for their futures is purely an education issue, so we should leave it to the government, the educators, and the administrators to fix.
But we know better. We know that civic organizations and business associations are key stakeholders that can lead with solutions.
Business is the single largest consumer of our education system. We’d be foolish not to engage in the debate and offer value where we can. So the U.S. Chamber is deeply involved in efforts to strengthen our education system and improve workforce training programs. We are taking the ideas and innovations that have made the U.S. private sector the envy of the world and applying them to this challenge.
The U.S. Chamber Foundation is mobilizing business leaders across the country to get involved in their communities.
One way is through what we call “Talent Pipeline Management”—a demand-driven approach to finding qualified workers. Using traditional supply chain management practices, businesses are partnering with educational institutions to “source” talent. It’s pretty simple: The employers define the specific skills they need in their workforce. The educators develop curriculum tailored to the employers’ needs and make students aware of existing job opportunities. And then the students emerge from these programs equipped with the right qualifications and ready to hit the ground running on day one.
The U.S. Chamber is also working to bring national attention to the youth unemployment crisis. We’re helping businesses of all sizes—and in industries ranging from communications and manufacturing to health care and financial services—understand how hiring young talent can support their long-term growth goals. We’ve released a series of reports outlining how young workers can be a part of a robust pipeline for a company’s next generation of talent … how they can fill critical workforce shortages … how they can increase diversity within a company … and how they can help spur innovation.
Now, we don’t pretend to have all the answers. We know that there are many stakeholders. And we understand that we can get a hell of a lot more done if we work closely with allies who share our values and our mission.
The U.S. Chamber is especially proud to count the Boy Scouts of America as a friend and partner in these efforts.
When Willie Iles broached a Chamber-Scouts partnership through the Exploring program, it made perfect sense.
The skills gap and youth unemployment are national challenges, but they will be solved at the local level by business leaders and civic organizations working together. Through Exploring, the Boy Scouts can bring to the table young people who are eager to learn and succeed. And the business community can bring the jobs.
The founder of the Scout movement, Robert Baden-Powell said, “There is no teaching to compare with example.” In that spirit, Exploring is built around the idea that preparing students for the future shouldn’t just take place in the classroom. It should take place in the offices, on the shop floors, in the studios, and in the labs where the work is done.
Exploring focuses on hands-on experience and mentorship—building character, teaching life skills, and instilling the value of hard work. These are the kinds of attributes that will help young people succeed in any career they choose.
Exploring gives students a chance to try out jobs, focus their studies, and set out on a path to success after high school—whether it’s in a skilled trade or in pursuit of higher education.
I don’t need to see a show of hands, but how many of you would have taken your high school or college studies a little more seriously if you had a specific goal in mind? If you knew exactly what you were working toward? Exploring can give students a sense of purpose and achievement that will help shape their educations and propel their careers.
For businesses, participating in Exploring is a chance to do good in their communities by investing in young people’s lives, helping create jobs, and strengthening the local economy. But it’s also a chance for businesses to do well—it can help the bottom line!
Many companies and organizations that participate in Exploring end up building a talent pipeline that feeds into their workforce. Young men and women in the program learn skills that are unique to participating companies and establish lasting relationships and mutual trust. So when the company has a position to fill, they have qualified candidates ready to do the job.
I was interested to learn that one of the most prominent partners of the Exploring program—the New York Police Department—frequently recruits former program participants to join its police force.
So my message to Chamber members is this: Exploring is not just a good thing to do—it’s a smart way to identify, train, and recruit young talent.
To help advance this partnership, the U.S. Chamber is raising awareness of Exploring through our education newsletter, which reaches 7,000 local chambers and education advocates. We’re going to feature the program on “Above the Fold”—the Chamber blog, which reaches Washington influencers, thought leaders, and businesses of every size and sector. And we’re going to get the word out to our nationwide federation of partners—regional, state, and local chambers of commerce that can partner with you in your communities.
For your part, I’d encourage each of you to reach out to your local Chamber partners, if you haven’t already. Not only can they connect you with members who might be interested in establishing an Exploring post, they can also advise you on workforce shortages and specific business needs.
Here’s the bottom line: If we combine our resources, our reputations, our reach, and our shared mission of improving our communities and the lives of young Americans, we can make a real difference.
Let me close with this. If you look around the country right now, it’s easy to get discouraged. The economy isn’t growing at the rate we need it to. The political season has been especially nasty and has revealed deep divisions within our country. The public mood is gloomy, and many of our fellow citizens are pessimistic about our nation’s future.
But I’m optimistic—I can’t help it, I’m Irish. And you should be optimistic, too.
We know that, despite the statistics, we still have the very best workforce on the planet. We know what our young people are capable of.
We know that with the guidance and support of organizations like the Boy Scouts, we can instill good character and strong principles in the next generation of U.S. leaders.
We know that the quintessential American values of working hard and taking risks are alive and well. They are what have made the United States the most innovative, productive, and prosperous nation in the world—and they will keep us on that leading edge.
We know that in a free enterprise economy, the only limit to what you can achieve is the limit you place on yourself.
Ladies and gentlemen, what we need to do is renew that sense of optimism, of hope, of limitless possibility in the hearts and minds of young Americans. We need to remind them that anything is still possible in this country if you work hard, if you never give up, and if you always do your best.
Working together, we can and we will.
Thank you very much.