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Lifelong Learning For A Stronger Workforce

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When real economic growth finally takes hold and unemployment rates begin to fall, it might be a lot easier to believe that the American workforce can actually return to business as usual. But positive numbers alone will not be enough to predict future success. The re-set of the global economy has magnified the real challenge facing U.S. business. Unless our nation adopts a strategy for the ongoing education and training of our workers, their prosperity - and America's business leadership - will be at risk, even after the economy recovers.

It's clearly time to make education - with a major focus on lifelong learning - a top priority.

American workers are the most productive in the world, but they are losing their education advantage. Globally, America ranks second to last - behind only Italy - among developed nations in postsecondary completion rates.

America's declining education level is on a collision course with a growing global demand for more skilled workers. More and more of today's jobs require ever-higher levels of education and skills - not only jobs in high technology or other traditionally white-collar industries, but all jobs. Nearly three quarters of the occupations that are expected to grow over the next six years, notably registered nurses, teachers, accountants, computer software engineers and auditors and business operations specialists, will call for credentials beyond a high school diploma. Meanwhile, demand for lower-skill jobs is falling. For example, it is estimated that by 2016, U.S. employers will need 200,000 fewer stock clerks and cashiers than in 2006.

Clearly, we are not doing enough to help and encourage our workforce to keep up. If fact, we make it difficult for people to develop the skills they need to advance in their careers. Education and training demand a worker's time, money, commitment and follow-through. They mean sorting through a deluge of advertisements for training, continuing education, distance learning, online courses and trade schools--and making sense of what these programs really offer. They also require an understanding of what you should study and how your investment will pay off.

Over the past year, I have chaired an independent commission convened by Business Roundtable charged with finding fresh ideas for how Americans can better obtain the knowledge and skills they need to compete and succeed in the global economy. Our group of experts--entrepreneurs, labor leaders, educators, governors, researchers, social networking experts and foundation leaders--came up with a short list of urgent recommendations.

As a first step, we need to do a better job communicating the value of education so that we can raise our country's abysmal graduation rates. We believe our recommendations can drive a double-digit increase in postsecondary graduation rates over the course of the next two decades.

We also need incentives to help build a better workforce. Eighty-one percent of workers we surveyed say they are interested in pursuing education or training outside the workplace, but such obstacles as inconvenience, cost and concerns about customization and accreditation hold them back. We must reward students who complete education and training programs. Schools that have a track record in getting students to graduate and secure a job should receive more funding than schools that just excel in attracting students.

We should unlock the value of community colleges and two-year institutions, which have enormous potential for advancing workers' earning power, revitalizing local economies and providing an "on ramp" to higher education.

And we must invest in more cost-effective models of higher education. With its skyrocketing costs, the current system is simply not sustainable. It is time to develop a variety of convenient, affordable and flexible education and training models that better meet students' and workers' needs. Online education is a promising move in this direction.

Every sector of our society has a role to play. Employers should communicate more clearly their labor needs and which skills and credentials they seek so that workers know which investments to make. Businesses can also take the lead in developing national standards for credentialing programs and accepting these certificates so that workers who pursue them can increase their earnings and build a career path. Government can do a better job making information about emerging industries, job growth and education and skill requirements more easily accessible and up-to-date.

On average, today's typical worker will change jobs or careers an astonishing 10 times in a lifetime. A national commitment to lifelong learning will be the springboard that can help workers get ahead and stay ahead as they navigate a rapidly-changing marketplace. All of us must do all we can to foster lifelong learning. For starters, business can help by placing a greater value on training and supporting employees who seek to upgrade their skills. And government can create tax-free lifelong learning accounts to which workers and employers can contribute. The possibilities are endless.

Although it will require a major cultural shift, ensuring a well-educated, well-trained workforce is imperative if our country is to stay competitive globally and if Americans are to continue to prosper in the coming decades.

William D. Green is Chairman and CEO of Accenture. He serves as Chairman of Business Roundtable's Education, Innovation and Workforce Initiative and as Chairman of The Springboard Project, an independent commission on workforce issues.