03/17/2014 11:45 am ET Updated May 17, 2014

Strong Foundations for 21st Century Skills? Start Early

Even with youth unemployment at high levels, business leaders complain that they cannot find graduates with the right skills for the modern workplace. A new report from McKinsey published this month found that although almost a quarter of the young people across the European Union are unemployed, only 40 percent of employers feel confident that they can find enough skilled graduates to fill entry-level positions. A recent study of employers by the US-based Business Roundtable found that most employers in the US also struggle to recruit employees skilled in critical thinking, critical problem solving and teamwork. And a survey of adult skills from the OECD in 2013 found that only between 2.9% and 8.8% of adults demonstrate the highest level of proficiency on problem‑solving in technology‑rich environments in OECD countries.

In an attempt to close this gap, businesses typically build relationships with colleges, vocational schools, universities and high schools. However, new science is telling us this focus on secondary and tertiary education is misplaced. We need to tackle the problem much earlier - at primary and before.

According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and Microsoft's Partnership in Learning, 21st century workforce skills include collaboration, knowledge construction, problem solving, innovation, self-regulation and skilled communication. Neuroscientists working in child development are telling us that these skill sets are most effectively fostered - or not - during the first years of life when our brain infrastructure is built.

To share some telling facts from the Harvard Centre on the Developing Child: a child's brain doubles in size the first year of life and 700 new neural connections are formed every second. As children grow older, those neural connections are "pruned" to make brain circuits more efficient. Early experiences determine the strength of those brain circuits.

So take collaboration. Children are born with the potential to collaborate, but it has to be developed through early childhood experiences. What we now know and what is so eloquently put by the Director of San Francisco's Children's Creativity Museum, Michael Nobleza: "how a child learns to play in the sandbox eventually informs how they choose to communicate and collaborate in teams at the office in the future."

The capacity to collaborate depends first of all on healthy relationships with parents or other primary caregivers, which build a child's capacity to understand other peo­ple's feelings, needs, and thoughts.

That, in turn, forms a foundation for cooperative interactions with other children. In settings where young children play with their peers, a warm and supportive environment influences the development of social competence, thinking and reasoning skills. Young children learn from each other how to share, how to engage in re­ciprocal interactions, to take the needs and desires of others into account, and to manage their own im­pulses.

Between the ages of 3 and 5, children develop - or not - the capacity to self-regulate. Before most children are in any education system, they pass through a critical window of brain development in what the science calls "executive functioning", which will later have a huge impact on learning outcomes and employability.

The capacity to follow multi-step instructions, to focus, control rash responses, adjust, persist at problem solving, manage long-term assignments, work in a team, to work toward goals, adapt, and think critically, are all cited by employers as 21st century skills. They are also all cited by neuroscientists as executive functioning traits that are best supported before children are old enough to start school.

Creativity is another 21st century skill that business leaders lament is lacking. Creativity is not to be confused with talent, skill, or intelligence. It is how we form original ideas through exploration and discovery, and it is another skill that needs to be nurtured in early childhood through well-developed early learning programs.

Some pioneering business leaders get it. In Germany Siemens sponsors the "little scientist house", a child development programme for young children which features very simple science experiments. In the US, CA Technologies is among corporations which sponsor Sesame Street to focus on developing science, technology, arts, engineering and math skills (STE(A)M).

These companies recognize that we cannot afford to wait for schools to educate our children. The foundations for lifelong learning are formed early, and out of the classroom.

According to the Boston Consulting Group's Thomas Steffans, national economic success is increasingly driven by "the ability to benefit more than suffer from increasing speed of change". When we understand that early childhood development lays the foundation for the flexible workforce that can initiate and respond to change, it's clear the private sector has a crucial interest in what happens to young children.

But what can business leaders do? Let me suggest three steps. First, learn about the importance of the early years and share that knowledge: host events with your own workforce, offer parenting tips; help your employees select day care centers that will help their own children to develop; adopt generous policies on parental leave, and flexible working practices to support parents.

Second, lead by example by providing support for local early childhood programs.

And finally, lobby policy makers to invest more public funds in supporting early learning. Politicians are understandably reluctant to prioritise investments that will pay off only after they've left office, and young children can't organise and advocate for themselves. Business leaders have a natural interest in doing it for them.