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Skilled for Life?: The Training Americans Need to Succeed

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The recently released Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and National Center for Education Statistics survey of cognitive and workplace skills confirms the unfortunate truth about America's poor standing among the world's industrialized nations. Adults in the U.S. scored far below their peers in Japan, Finland, Australia and Germany on math literacy and problem-solving skills, and had among the world's highest "achievement gaps" between those with high and low levels of education, and between those working in skilled versus unskilled occupations. Even more disturbing, the U.S. is falling behind competing nations in the race to obtain job-related skills.

In sum, America has a skills crisis of epic proportions. To address it, experts at OECD and the National Center for Education Statistics recommend exactly what's been happening in IBM's P-TECH-model schools located in some of the most economically challenged neighborhoods of Chicago and New York City. P-TECH-model schools emphasize academic rigor and create clear pathways from high school to college and career for all students.

Joining the Solution

Some commentators -- like Thomas Friedman -- have opined that the U.S. suffers more from a skills crisis than a jobs crisis. Others, most notably Hedrick Smith in Who Stole the American Dream - argue that any "skills crisis" is secondary to the need for employers to do more to stimulate growth. At IBM, we see merit on both sides of the debate. That's why we've formed partnerships with governments, school districts and postsecondary institutions to develop a recipe -- a playbook -- that any community can follow to transform their educational systems from lackluster performers into growth engines impacting skills and jobs. The P-TECH model is working in multiple schools in Chicago and New York City, and under Governor Andrew Cuomo's leadership, 16 more schools will roll out across New York State in 2014.

When it comes to America's skills and jobs crisis, it's vitally important to acknowledge and address the challenge quickly instead of playing a blame game that our young people can't afford. The OECD report is the clearest documentation to date of our systemic and cross-generational skills problem. Now it's time for employers to act. In the face of this crisis that affects us all, companies can't just sit back, decry the problem and implore government to solve it. Businesses need to step up to the plate, roll up their sleeves and become part of the solution -- not the problem.

By now, we know that no single sector of society can solve our biggest challenges. Whether it's recovering from a deep economic crisis, driving toward innovation, reinventing education or closing the skills gap, we must work together to succeed. Collaborations and partnerships between the public and private sectors are not new; they enabled us to implement Social Security and reach the moon. Now it's time to form and utilize these partnerships and secure a meaningful future for our next generation.

As the recent skills reports confirm, we must connect education to jobs by reaching beyond generalities, pursuing significant changes to "business as usual," and investing existing resources at all levels of government more effectively.

· It's time to revamp career and technical education by embedding workplace skills training for 21st century jobs directly into challenging academic curricula, and tracking progress against high standards.

· It's time to align high school and postsecondary coursework directly with one another so students can progress seamlessly along the path from school to higher education, and then to a rewarding career.

· Finally, it's time to link career and technical education to where the jobs are now and will be in the future, and phase out programs and schools that prepare students for "careers" that no longer exist.

So... what must businesses do? Employers must help educators map school curricula to marketplace needs so young people are prepared for future careers. Employers also must support students' development with mentors and paid internships, and hire those graduates who are prepared with the right skills.

And what must educators do? Perhaps most important, educators need to discontinue programs that saddle students with outdated skills. To do this, it will be essential that educators open their doors to business and higher education involvement in program planning and curriculum development. The final step will be to assess program success against the metric of the only relevant output -- high-wage employment.

The federal program that supports all U.S. career education under the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act is up for reauthorization, and is the perfect place to start. But we need to update it to align with the demands of the global marketplace. Government, employers and educators must collaborate to link schooling to career success -- and they must do it now. Our children deserve no less.

The OECD report is the latest wake-up call that everything is not okay with American education. But let's not throw up our hands and walk away. Let's make it our priority to heed the call, reshape our approach to education and skills training, and begin the next great era of American progress.

Stanley S. Litow is IBM's Vice President of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs and President of the IBM International Foundation. Mr. Litow is a former Deputy Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools.