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Tom Donohue: Smart Reforms Needed to Close Skills and Education Gap

America's competitors are surging ahead in the global race for job talent

Many American employers are facing an unexpected challenge in a time of chronic high unemployment — an insufficient supply of skilled and educated workers. Statistics show that 3.4 million jobs sit vacant because businesses simply can’t find qualified workers to fill them.

Education and workforce development systems have not kept pace with the demands of the 21st century, creating a skills gap that threatens our prosperity at home and our competitiveness abroad.

Approximately 90 percent of the jobs in the fastest-growing occupations require some level of post-secondary education or training. But fewer American students are emerging from our public education system with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. Too many lack proficiency in math, science, reading, communications and critical thinking.

Once first in the world, the United States now ranks 10th in the percentage of young adults with a college degree. At the same time, baby boomers are retiring at an accelerating rate without a steady inflow of skilled talent behind them.

To help foster a competitive workforce, American businesses spend billions of dollars each year training their employees and pour billions more into education. Despite these investments, employers continue to report that too many applicants are unqualified for modern jobs. Basic training programs alone can’t bridge the gap. And by allowing these jobs to sit vacant, the United States is missing crucial opportunities to grow the economy and strengthen the recovery.

Meanwhile, our competitors are surging ahead in the global race for talent. Germany, India, Korea and China have all made preparing their citizens to work in the 21st century a priority — and their economies are stronger for it. Global investors and major manufacturers tend to go where the skilled workers are, which is increasingly not in America.

To bridge the U.S. skills gap, we must focus on developing homegrown talent through commonsense education reforms. Applying the principles of innovation, transparency, accountability, high standards, and a focus on efficiency and results would help restore excellence in American schools. Our students must have a strong foundation in order to move on to higher education and advanced training. We can also better leverage the talents and experience of U.S. veterans by smoothing their transition to the workforce. Many military service members have skills that are directly transferable to private-sector jobs.

Americans need jobs, and U.S. employers need workers. Through smart reforms, we can bridge the skills and education gap, match workers with jobs and energize the economy.

— Tom Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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