10/09/2014 09:55 am ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

Getting Down to Business on Workforce Preparation

While the Great Recession is officially over, many Americans are still struggling to regain their economic footing. One way to get our country on a sound path to recovery is a focus on better preparing our students for success in the workforce. So says a new report by Harvard Business School's U.S. Competitiveness Project, "An Economy Doing Half Its Job."

It calls for employers to engage more deeply in helping students develop the skills they need to succeed beyond the classroom. Business "is mostly involved in fragmented, subscale efforts that alleviate weaknesses in the education system without strengthening the system for the long run," the report says.

It also affirms the need for more strategic approaches locally, finding that "many American cities and towns have a host of programs to support children but lack strategies for aligning those programs, filling gaps between programs, eliminating redundancies, agreeing on goals, measuring success, and investing behind what works."

Both ideas mirror United Way's point of view: strategic partnerships between communities and employers are critical to make lasting community change that goes beyond quick fixes.

Look at Winston-Salem, N.C., where education is a priority for employers, government and nonprofits. United Way of Forsyth County is fueling a cradle-to-career education strategy -- elevating the issue, building partnerships that coordinate efforts and engaging people as volunteers. More tutoring, mentoring and family engagement is part of the solution. Results are encouraging: double-digit increases in graduation rates and more than double the percentage of children on grade level in math and reading at the feeder middle school.

But it can't just happen in one town. As Harvard's report says, "successful efforts that emerge in one locale are too rarely replicated elsewhere."

That's why nearly 1,200 United Ways across the nation are engaging partners across sectors to create stronger communities, by improving education, financial stability and health. And companies like Target are working with United Way to create community-based solution strategies that can be replicated nationwide.

Check out Harvard's suggestions for companies to support education here. When employers work with communities to create more opportunities for youth, we all win.