THE BLOG
09/15/2015 05:29 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2016

Five Ways to Deploy a 21st Century Workforce

In our dynamic and global economy, we need to ask whether our workforce is equipped to meet the increasingly complex demands of the 21st century.

The answer, as it stands today, is a decisive no.

A critical pair of statistics underscores this reality: By 2020, labor economists predict that more than two-thirds of jobs will require postsecondary education of some form. And today, only 40 percent of Americans hold such credentials.

Failing to address the gap between labor demand and our nation's talent pool will have severe implications for the Americans who fail to attain the knowledge and skills required to thrive in today's workforce. It could have even more dramatic consequences for our nation's ability to excel as a global leader.

America rose to pre-eminence in the 20th century because of our ability to attract, train, and deploy the talent needed to meet the economy's demands. Now we're losing our edge when it comes to talent, and as a result, we risk losing our world leadership.

Subtle signs of our nation's decline are beginning to emerge. Forty-seven million Americans are living in poverty, and median household income has dropped since the 1990s. We're also failing to launch new generations to independent adulthood because so many young Americans are not armed with the tools necessary to compete in the 21st century. The median age at which young workers reach financial independence has increased from 26 to 30 over the past three decades, and young adults' labor force participation rate has returned to its 1972 level -- a decline that started in the late 1990s and began accelerating in 2000.

The trends are occurring, in part, because America's human capital pipeline can't keep up with the need for workers, and as a result, employment opportunities are going elsewhere. Homegrown positions will soon be fewer and farther between, too, and as they go, so goes our quality of life and our global position.

What's more, we risk losing out on $7 trillion in market and nonmarket value by failing to attract and invest in the talent our economy needs - a number culled from an analysis of many studies on the topic.

But despite the great gravity of this challenge, there's much room for hope. Our nation's success in building and deploying the right pipeline of talent to meet the needs of the last century can be replicated - and amplified - by focusing on five critical efforts:

Rethinking and reimagining higher education: Higher education has long been a pathway for preparing workers for economic advancement. But our system has failed to evolve along with society, and today it is out of sync with too many students' needs. We need to redesign our higher education system so that it is centered on today's students, most notably by measuring students' progress based on their learning outcomes, rather than time spent in the classroom.

Unleashing private sector innovation: The private sector can play a powerful role in addressing the talent conundrum. There's incredible potential to tap into a slice of the $212 trillion in assets of the private capital markets to pioneer bold solutions for addressing this challenge. And all companies must take up the cause of building a more talented workforce and leverage tools at their disposal to achieve it.

Consolidating and repurposing the federal role in talent development: Much more could be achieved with existing resources if federal priorities and resources were aligned behind the goal of increasing talent. We should create a U.S. Department of Talent to manage the good but uncoordinated work of disparate agencies and send a powerful message the federal government is serious and strategic about its interest in talent.

Developing a new immigration model built around the type of talent we need: Immigration is a core part of the story of American success, but that narrative has languished in recent years because of our bureaucratic and dysfunctional immigration system. We must reshape this system around attracting the talent employers need and equipping immigrants already here with the skills and knowledge for success.

Reimagining our cities as hubs of talent: Cities that thrive in the 21st Century will be those that not only attract talent from the outside in, but also build it from the ground up. By focusing on cultivating cities as hubs of talent, we could create places that entice and embrace newcomers while educating the homegrown workforce.

None of these solutions is a silver bullet. To work, they must be embraced collectively. And that will require strong will from political leaders and the participation of all players -- from government to the private sector to higher education.

If we can pull it off, we can make sure America is a leader when it comes to cultivating and deploying talent, which in turn will position our nation for global success over the next century.

Then, and only then then can we begin to answer the question -whether America's workforce is ready for what's next - with a resounding and definitive yes.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, a national foundation dedicated to increasing Americans' college attainment, and author of "America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating & Deploying the 21st-Century Workforce."