Filling the Need for Skilled Workers Requires Smarter Education

09/09/2010 01:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Diane Melley IBM Vice President, Corporate Citizenship, Global Community Initiatives

As another school year gets underway, I'm reminded that education remains one of the best pathways young people have toward a prosperous future - even in tough economic times.

Studying seriously, opting for courses in math and science, getting into college and pursuing advanced degrees are not easy tasks, but they are not any more difficult than spending a lifetime in lower-skilled, lower-wage jobs.

Students today may be skeptical about what will help them get a good paying job. But from my perspective, people with the skills that the marketplace wants and needs are in demand and continue to get hired in good times or bad.

What are the skills in demand? Creative thinking, the ability to think analytically, entrepreneurial and leadership skills are what most corporate executives point to as essential in today's work force.

Staying in school increases the odds of getting those skills. But despite all evidence of the importance of a diploma, the dropout rate remains a major issue for our schools. A report released last year by Northeastern University estimated that nearly 6.2 million U.S. students between ages 16 and 24 dropped out of school.

In my work as chair of the non-profit Philadelphia Education Fund, which aims to improve the quality of public education, I see first-hand, the pressing need to keep students in school.

Research conducted in 2005 by the Education Fund and John Hopkins University identified four early warning signs that correlated with middle school students dropping out: poor attendance, poor behaviors, failing math and literacy.

As a result, the education fund developed, Diplomas Now, an intervention program, which tackles these warning signs. The results are encouraging. Of 250 students who were "off-track" to graduation, 54 percent have shown improvement in their original areas of risk and two-thirds have improved English and math grades. Today the program is being replicated in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Antonio and New Orleans.

Increasing the number of college graduates also has a direct, positive impact on our economy over the long term. Most studies show that college graduates have higher lifetime earnings than those without a diploma. The American Enterprise Institute, however, estimates that only 53 percent of college students graduated in six years with a bachelor's degree from schools they enrolled in as freshmen.

Helping students stay in school, graduate and develop the skills they need for employment helps to assure a prosperous future for them and their community.

For young people with advanced skills, a wide range of new opportunities are opening up. The need to conserve resources for a more sustainable future - to create modern systems for transportation, food distribution and law information, and to apply "intelligent" technologies to more efficiently manage water and power resources - are emerging areas of our economy that will need to employ workers in the decades ahead.

Preparing our young people for the jobs of the future is the first and most important step in our economic development. A workforce educated for the 21st century will go a long way toward increasing employment levels, lowering poverty rates and maintaining a high quality of life for all our citizens.