Opportunity is at the heart of the American Dream, and at the heart of opportunity is a job. When the right person fills the right job, we all benefit—families, neighborhoods, businesses. We all grow and prosper. Yet, there’s a disconnect in our country. The national unemployment rate has fallen since the depths of the Great Recession, but we still have too many people without jobs and too many jobs without people.
Today, 50 percent of available positions in this country go unfilled because qualified candidates aren’t available. At the same time, 40 percent of businesses can’t take on more work because they can’t fill the jobs they have. We call this the skills gap.
It’s a challenge in the workplace, but its roots are in the classroom. In an increasingly global and competitive economic environment, a country’s success will depend upon how well it’s educating its citizens. Many countries around the globe have heard this message loud and clear and are doing something about it. Regrettably, the United States remains idle while our global competitors pass us by in international education rankings.
If we are to compete in the 21st century, we must throw out the old playbook—that was written for a different time. What we need is a new playbook designed to better prepare students with the skills necessary for success in the knowledge economy. From the banks on Wall Street to the shops on Main Street, the world of work is changing. Our education system must change with it.
We must reimagine the entire education pipeline if we are to keep the promise that the American dream is available to everyone in this country. It starts with ensuring that early education programs, an economic necessity for many, are high quality. Research shows that a quality educational foundation in the early years is critical for future success in school and beyond.
The quality of our K-12 system varies greatly depending on two things: where you live and how much you earn. Students in wealthier homes stand a better chance of attending a high-quality school than those of less means. Too often, a ZIP code determines a student’s chance in life. If we are committed to providing all students with opportunity, we must ensure that all students have the opportunity to attend a high-quality school. This means providing families with choices so they can determine which school best meets the needs of their child. For some, it’s a charter school or the neighborhood school. For others, it may be a private school. We shouldn’t have a one size fits all approach to K-12. Different students have different needs. Education should be customized to meet those needs.
The knowledge economy demands students learn to think critically, collaborate effectively and communicate clearly. We also know that we need students to be tech savvy. Our education system should provide students with experiences that sharpen these skills. Things like flipped classrooms, digital learning and dual enrollment programs are helping to better prepare students for life after high school. Career and technical education programs that are aligned to industry needs are also an important component to ensuring more students are career-ready.
In today’s world of work, it’s imperative for students who graduate high school to earn some sort of postsecondary credential. This doesn’t mean a four-year college is for everyone. But to earn a good, middle-class living today, students will need training beyond high school. And with rising student debt, we must provide students and families with clear data so they can make an informed decision when selecting a postsecondary program. They should know the cost of their programs of interest, how “in-demand” the skills learned in that program are in the marketplace, and their projected earnings after earning a degree. Students and families need to have a clear understanding of their return on investment in higher education.
Business, too, has a responsibility to assume more of a leadership role in partnering with education providers. Too often, when we talk about the skills gap, we point fingers at the education system or the business community, but the reality is that both can do a better job of collaborating so students learn the skills necessary for success in today’s world. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been working throughout the years to close the people-jobs gap, and we continue to explore innovative ways to ensure the business community has a steady pipeline of the best talent in the world.
At a time when much of the discussion in this nation is about problems, it’s time for business and education to come together to provide solutions. It’s time to unlock opportunities for all students to realize their full potential and drive economic growth for years to come.
This is a huge challenge, but it’s one we can meet if we have the will and if we choose to work together.
Cheryl Oldham is vice president of education policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and senior vice president of education and workforce for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.