THE BLOG
03/25/2014 10:52 am ET | Updated May 25, 2014

The Crisis We Can't Afford

One of the most promising experiments in American education is taking root in Chicago's South Side. The Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy is a new type of public school designed to achieve two of our country's most urgent goals: help more young adults gain the skills they need to succeed in today's globally competitive economy, and provide companies with the trained talent they need.

For too many students, schools like Sarah E. Goode are simply not available to them. It's time for us to change that by revamping our career and technical education programs.

With U.S. employers struggling to find skilled workers and 10 million young Americans unable to get jobs, the chasm between workforce supply and demand is historically high. Forty years ago, just 28 percent of American jobs required an associate's degree or better. By 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require such credentials.

Yet many young adults lack the skills and training required for good-paying, "middle-skill" jobs in fields such as information technology, health care, biotech, advanced manufacturing and business. Unless we dramatically increase the number of Americans who receive training and education after high school, America will fall short by an estimated five million skilled workers within the next six years.

American employers focused on improving their bottom line are venturing abroad to hire skilled workers. Meanwhile, our most valuable and untapped resource -- our youth -- is too often overlooked. At a time when the unemployment rate for young Americans is stuck at 16 percent, improving career and technical education is one of the most powerful ways we can ensure the rising generation is prepared for good-paying jobs in growth industries.

And quite simply, America can't afford not to. Millions of young Americans are unable to secure a foothold on a meaningful career ladder -- a tragic loss to them personally and to our nation as a whole. Their lost wages, missed promotions and lower savings represent an estimated loss of $20 billion over the next decade, and billions more over their lifetimes in higher social services paid for by taxpayers.

A light at the end of the tunnel is Chicago's Goode STEM Academy, which is at the forefront of efforts to equip today's young adults for the global economy. It's no accident that the school is born from a dynamic partnership among businesses, schools and higher education.

The school is a Pathways in Technology Early College High School, "P-TECH" for short. Students at P-TECH schools study for six years and earn not only a high school diploma but also an associate's degree in a high-demand field -- for free -- by the time they graduate.

Most importantly, corporate leadership plays a central role in P-TECH schools. IBM and other major employers help shape the schools' industry-aligned curricula to ensure students graduate with market-ready skills, and their employees serve as one-on-one mentors to the students. The students who graduate from these academies are first in line for jobs at IBM, Verizon, Cisco and Motorola, among others.

The good news is that 29 more P-TECH schools are slated to open across the country over the next two years. President Obama has pledged $100 million to expand similar schools to even more students.

But government can and should do more. Congress should move quickly to revamp the outdated Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) program that sends $1 billion to states each year. Federal funding should require more collaboration and coordination between education and private sectors. And at least part of the Perkins fund should be converted into competitive grants within states so programs with the best return on investment are rewarded, and can expand to serve even more students.

Businesses and educational institutions need to do more as well, beginning with working more closely together. A new survey from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation highlights the disconnect: just 11% percent of business leaders 'strongly agree' that today's graduates have the skills and knowledge their companies require, yet 96 percent of higher education chief academic officers' believe they adequately prepare students for today's jobs.

Improving career and technical education and expanding innovative programs such as P-TECH will lead to a smarter, better U.S. workforce. These initiatives will help set the next generation on a course to economic stability, while providing American employers with the talent they urgently require. Only by working together, can businesses, schools and higher education institutions make sure young adults get their fair shot at the American Dream and ensure our nation is on a path to prosperity.

Mark Edwards is executive director of Opportunity Nation, a bipartisan, cross-sector, national campaign made up of more than 300 nonprofits, businesses, educational institutions, faith-based and community organizations, and individuals all working together to expand economic mobility and close the opportunity gap in America.