Cracks in the U.S. work force suggest that our legacy of ever-expanding opportunity and advancement is under threat.
Even as unemployment remains high, 3 million U.S. jobs sit vacant because businesses can’t find qualified workers to fill them. And the current generation of students could be the first in our history to be less educated than their parents.
Fewer Americans are emerging from our public education system with sufficient skills in math, science, reading, communications and critical thinking. Without that foundation, it’s harder for them to advance their education or careers in our modern economy. Consequently, the United States has fallen to 10th in the world in the percentage of young adults with a college degree — we used to be first.
Complicating matters, the jobs of the 21st century are becoming more specialized and technical, requiring more education, advanced training and sophisticated skills. Approximately 90 percent of the jobs in the fastest-growing occupations require some post-secondary education and training. By 2020, there will be 120 million “high-skilled” and “high-wage” jobs.
To ensure a steady flow of American workers to fill those jobs, we must strengthen U.S. education and job training, aligning those systems with the needs of our economy.
U.S. businesses can and must play a role. The business community continues to advocate for policies that better prepare students to be college and career ready — such as Common Core State Standards — and supports an overhaul of current job training systems. Companies also invest heavily in education, contributing more than $4 billion a year. But we’ve largely left the job of educating our work force to the educators. Business needs to take a more hands-on approach.
We’ve got to clearly articulate what we need: competitive workers who can write, reason, solve problems, and apply their learning and use their diplomas or degrees to contribute to our economy.
We must help students see a clear connection between their programs of study and tangible opportunities in the labor market. And we need to bring more American students into our businesses through internships and apprenticeships. “Work-linked” learning can enrich their education and help decide career paths.
The bottom line is that the education and competitiveness of our workers affect all of us. It determines the economic strength and global competitiveness of our country. So we’ve got to work together to make sure that we’re improving and investing in one of America’s greatest assets — the U.S. work force.
If we do that, we’ll be able to protect the great American legacy of opportunity and advancement, too.
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— Tom Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The opinions expressed are his own.