12/20/2012 05:01 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Businesses Can Create a Better Economy by Teaching More Than Job Skills

Over the last few months, I've participated in several conferences all exploring the same issue--how business can help improve our public education system.

That's good news, as there is no doubt that business must be an important player in our schools if we are truly going to prepare our children for the 21st Century.

Interestingly, at each conference there has been at least one voice of skepticism in the crowd. As panels and audiences discuss "job skills" and the need to ensure that our students have the math and science degrees that today's jobs demand, someone inevitably asks: "Are we too focused on preparing our students for work? Are we forgetting about the importance of great literature? What about educating our children to become well-rounded citizens who can make thoughtful decisions about all aspects of their lives?"

The answer I've now heard equally as many times is a convincing one: this is a false dichotomy. In today's complex society, the skills needed to succeed in the workplace are broad and sweeping and, in fact, require a well-rounded education that goes beyond technical expertise.

As a university professor responded at one of the conferences I recently attended, "I've come to the conclusion that it's pretty difficult for someone to be a productive member of society if they don't have the basic skills needed to get a job."

A recent McKinsey study underscores the way that "job skills" and a more well-rounded education are part of the same continuum: worldwide, 75 million youth are unemployed, and nearly 40% of possible employers say that a lack of basic skills is the main reason for persisting entry-level job vacancies.

To their credit, businesses are stepping up to provide young people with the skills they need: they're not simply looking for 'their' future workforce, but they are making the investments needed to develop our future leaders and our future citizenry.

The 3 R's: Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic

No one disputes that basic skills are crucial to academic, and career, success. Students can't succeed if they don't know how to read and write; today math and science skills are equally important .

Research shows that students learn these basic skills faster and perform better when they understand the connections between what they're learning and the wider world. And so while the businesses I talk with believe that teaching these basic skills is the purview of skilled teachers, they are helping teachers engage their students by enhancing curricula and providing project-based learning that provides real-world applications for what students learn in the classroom.

The engineering firm Arup, for example, partners with PENCIL to support the International High School at Prospect Heights and The School of Integrated Learning. Arup engineers developed separate bridge and wind turbine projects that enabled students to learn firsthand ways that science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM) are applied in the real world.

Sure, they hope some of these young Brooklynites will become tomorrow's engineers. But they know that the majority won't. Despite that, they know that instilling a sense of curiosity, teaching critical thinking skills, and opening their eyes to new opportunities will benefit these students in countless ways.

College Readiness

In New York City, only 23% of students graduate ready for college and careers, and only 46% of students graduate on time and pursue college. And according to a report from the Apollo Group, "between 1940 and 1980, the average level of schooling for the typical American increased by just under a year per decade." But over the last 30 years that "education growth rate" has slowed by 50%: today, our population as a whole is missing about 200 million years of collective education, as compared to the 'high-water mark' set in the 1980s, and our workforce alone is missing more than 100 million years of education. That missing time costs the U.S. GDP as much as $2.3 trillion; if we could recapture those years, we could add $670 billion every year to our GDP.

That's why business can't just concentrate on helping students who are interested in their line of work. Rather, businesses need to focus on early and broad college awareness and preparedness programs that make students aware of the vast opportunities higher education provides.

At an elementary school in Harlem, communications consultant Ivy Cohen is working with Principal Christopher Ogno to get elementary schoolers thinking about college now. Through partnerships with more than 20 colleges and universities, the students (and their parents) are learning firsthand about the benefits of college and what it takes to get there. In addition to having a strong presence in the school, the Partners host student visits to area colleges as well as "college nights," helping students and parents alike envision college as an achievable goal for their family.

New Skills for a New Millennium

One of today's workforce development buzz words is "21st Century skills." Companies are looking for people who, in addition to having the technical and academic skills, are critical thinkers as well as disciplined, persistent, and flexible as situations change. Sound like skills that are only about "finding a job"?

Through career preparedness and internship programs, businesses are teaching just that. Through training delivered by business professionals and through workplace experiences, students learn about professional expectations and behavior: how to communicate with their colleagues, function as a team, network, dress professionally, and use office technology.

Those are just a few examples of how businesses are addressing the increasing overlap between "job skills" and the broader expertise that are needed to become a "well-rounded citizen."

A New Yorker article published earlier this year explored the rise of Stanford University as a Silicon Valley tech incubator. Included in the piece were findings from a study of their undergraduate program. It simply articulates why education matters:

The long-term value of an education is to be found not merely in the accumulation of knowledge or skills but in the capacity to forge fresh connections between them, to integrate different elements from one's education and experience and bring them to bear on new challenges and problems . . .

With this in mind, it's time to stop creating this false dichotomy between teaching "job skills" and offering a more general education. When we do both, we're not just training our future workers--we're educating the future.