11/04/2013 05:56 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Building the Workforce of Tomorrow

It's election time again in the United States. Although Tuesday's off-season voting in a series of states will not alter the balance of political power in any significant way, it takes place amid the reverberations of a host of truly big issues. The recent government shutdown, the wrangle over the debt ceiling, the administration's drone campaign, the ongoing revelations of global surveillance by the NSA, healthcare, gun violence -- these are just a few of the most obvious hot-button topics in the political air as voters go to the polls.

None of these matters are up for a vote, but the way that people feel about them may influence their choices. Ideological divisions seem to have hardened, as foes seek to reinforce their respective bases. The slogan seems to be: "Never give an inch!"

As the founder of the Global Youth Initiative, I try always to follow unfolding events with the eyes, ears and mind of a young person. And from that perspective, elections can be sad affairs.

Instead of inspiring young people with positive visions and concrete opportunities to really shape the future, campaigns often turn negative, and the effect among the young can be disillusionment and apathy.

In my experience, young people aren't interested in defending entrenched positions. They are driven by a sense of possibility, seeking something that can help them, and the world, move forward. They want to take the first steps toward realizing their own potential, to have a hand in shaping the world they stand to inherit. They look to political leaders to articulate a vision that includes them, and to provide really workable tools to help them translate that vision into reality.

Office-seekers need to take this mega-trend into account.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, one-quarter of the world's population is between the ages of 10 and 24. In the developing world, it is well above 60 percent -- some 3.2 billion people. The U.S. may have a relatively low birth rate, but it is not immune to the tide of time. It is imperative to the continuity of our society and the survival of our species that young people -- many or most of whom are not yet of voting age -- are equipped to deal with the challenges they will face.

These challenges are very concrete. They include environmental, economic and technological changes of a magnitude and rapidity never before seen. To meet them, young people certainly need skills to compete in a dynamic globalized workforce. But they also require skills in leadership and communication, to enable them to develop whatever new forms of social organization the future may require. And finally, they need the "space" in which to unleash their creativity.

Where this is not the case, destabilization is the norm. According to the United Nations World Youth Report 2011, global youth unemployment stood at 12.6 percent in 2010 compared to 4.8 percent for adults. Youth make up fully 24 percent of the working poor. In North Africa and the Middle East, the failure of states to integrate youth in economic life resulted in youth unemployment hovering around 25 percent, and is considered to have contributed significantly to the "Arab Spring" uprisings.

Around the world, education is seen as the key to success in life. Ideas of the definition, scope and contours of education vary. We in the Global Youth Initiative suggest that this education should contribute not only to skill-building in the near term, but to larger ethical and compassionate decision-making. We believe that serious issues, such as poverty, cannot be framed by raison d'etat or the profit motive, and that those most affected -- youth -- should be engaged at an early stage in the search for solutions.

As Paul Wolfowitz, then president of the World Bank, wrote in the 2007 World Development Report, "The number of people worldwide aged 12-24 years has reached 1.3 billion, the largest in history. It is also the healthiest and best educated - a strong base to build on in a world that demands more than basic skills."

With this in mind, I'm inspired by political candidates who recognize this potential in youth. Terry McAuliffe, candidate for governor of Virginia, is one. McAuliffe has a long track record in business and political leadership, and has been a strong supporter of the economic engagement philosophy that lies at the heart of the Clinton Global Initiative and the Global Youth Initiative. He has made education one of the central thrusts of his campaign.

McAuliffe's vision is not just to throw money at a problem, but to build the "workforce of the 21st century" through enhanced collaboration between high schools, community colleges, four-year colleges and universities, and regional development authorities. He seeks to build more flexibility into testing, via essays and short-answers, so that youth are being supported in areas of critical thinking and problem solving, not just rote memorization. He believes that "quality educational systems need to think more creatively," and would encourage partnerships between the business and educational communities, stressing computer and science education so that the U.S. can maintain a leadership role in those sectors. And he would improve the situation of teachers, recognizing that instructors who receive little support cannot give it to their pupils.

Most importantly for me, McAuliffe began his career by starting his own pavement repair business -- at the age of 14. He knows the skills that matter, and he knows the challenges that young people face in gaining access to them. Community colleges, as McAuliffe notes, are the engines of the regional workforce. "Every dollar spent on community college workforce training," he writes, "creates many more in economic development. It's time to invest where we get the greatest return." Concretely, this means making employment data available to all Virginians, so that students and their parents can begin to orient themselves to economic reality and pursue practical opportunities. Finally, a key to all of this is adequate public support, so that graduates are not handicapped by debt. McAuliffe would make this possible by making the system more efficient and eliminating duplication and overlap.

So even in an "off" election year not dominated by direct referenda on major issues, there are opportunities to help build momentum on themes that ultimately do affect the outcome of those larger questions. By involving youth, not as the passive objects of our planning but as true partners in the search for solutions, we can lay the groundwork for a viable future.