We are nearly 20 years into the 21st century and businesses are no closer to having the 21st-century workforce. While generations of students have come of age in an era of upskilling, rapid technological and AI growth, employers, like us, remain frustrated that far too few job applicants have the skills we need for our companies to succeed. Workforce development initiatives that focus on retraining adults who are unemployed or underemployed may address a small part of the problem, but that’s only a remedial solution. The commonsense way to ensure that all businesses have a better skilled labor pool is to make sure that students graduate from high school and enter the workforce prepared for today’s careers.
The Greater Philadelphia region is one of the most vibrant places to work and live in the country. Generating 41 percent of the state’s economic activity and home to about a third of the state’s population and businesses, the region powers Pennsylvania’s economy. Yet, if you ask many employers what their number one concern is, the answer overwhelmingly is finding employees with skills to fill their open positions.
In such a talented region, it shouldn’t really be that hard for businesses to find qualified applicants. Yet, it is. Only 21 percent of employers believe the workforce meets businesses’ needs.
Meanwhile, nearly 900,000 children live in Philadelphia and it’s four suburban counties. The region has an ample pipeline of potential talent. If all these students had access to a high-quality prekindergarten program and graduated from high school with strong set of skills ready to enter college or begin working at one of the region’s businesses, there would be no need for this commentary.
But more than half of the students in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties are leaving high school unprepared for promising jobs or college. While the quality of K-12 education isn’t something business leaders often consider, we are undercutting our bottom line if we continue to turn a blind eye.
We can argue about why that is, but business leaders know. Poor investment yields a poor result. No business can expect to turn a profit if it fails to invest in the tools and technologies that maximize efficiency and productivity. So, too, is it a fallacy to believe that schools without resources have the tools to generate stellar results for students. Students in overcrowded classrooms without books or technology will not learn the hard or soft skills employers prize.
In fact, we can see that fallacy play out right here in the Greater Philadelphia region. Compare, for instance, the Pottstown and Lower Merion school districts. In Pottstown, they have almost 40 percent less than Lower Merion does to educate their students. It’s not a surprise that the share of students working on grade level in English and math in Lower Merion is higher. What is surprising is how different the scores are. Lower Merion’s students’ scores in English were 73 percent higher, while the math scores were about 147 percent greater. Money matters for students and having resources that enhance performance impacts results. In fact, when the state intentionally invested in students from 2003 to 2010, test scores went up.
Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) released a terrific report called “The Game Plan.” In it, they make the best case for closing the skills and employment gaps. If businesses want the 21st-century workforce they’ve envisioned for the last 50 years, it’s not rocket science – all of the region’s students need millennial grade skills. If the investments haven’t been enough, it makes financial sense to change strategies.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again while expecting a different result. We’ve done that for 50 years. It’s 2019 – time to stop the insanity. Business leaders must lead the charge in investing in the region’s public schools.