By Stephen M. Wing, President, Corporate Voices for Working Families

A recent article in The Washington Post — “Why does Fresno have thousands of job openings – and high unemployment?” – spotlights a serious and growing national issue: the mismatch between the skills that employers need and want and those that workers are bringing to the workplace. This skills gap undercuts the ability of businesses to compete and threatens to exclude thousands of people from the workforce, now and in the years ahead.

Corporate Voices for Working Families surfaced this serious national issue in 2006 when business leaders throughout the country participated in a research study and said that new entrants were not prepared for the workplace of the 21st Century. They just didn’t have the basic or applied skills necessary to succeed.  The gap between employers’ needs and workers’ skills—and the imperative to close it—has been an ongoing call to arms from the business community for many years. It has not abated even in the current economic recession and unacceptably high levels of both unemployment and underemployment.

Yet the need to close this skills gap is critical: We know that some 30 million of the 47 million jobs available over the next decade will require postsecondary credentials. Those jobs will simply be out of reach for too many Americans – particularly younger people now preparing to enter the workplace — unless they are able to negotiate the demands of school and work.

Our work at Corporate Voices reflects this perspective, and the recognition that employers can and must be active partners in preparing the talent pool of skilled employees.  One important way to do so is to invest in their continuing education and training through “learn and earn” initiatives—programs offering lower-skilled workers in particular the opportunity to pursue higher education and postsecondary credentials while earning a living at the same time. With more than 75 percent of college students holding down a job while going to school, businesses can play a critical role in helping their employees complete college.

And the following provides additional perspective on Corporate Voices’ work involved with postsecondary education completion.

Postsecondary Education Completion

Corporate Voices for Working Families addresses this issue through its robust workforce readiness initiative. Through its “Learn and Earn” work, made possible with the generous support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Corporate Voices seeks to identify and support innovative partnerships between employers and community colleges to help build workforce readiness skills and to help low-income young adults compete for the jobs of the future.

In a recent report titled From an ‘Ill-Prepared’ to a Well-Prepared Workforce: The Shared Imperatives for Employers and Community Colleges to Collaborate, Corporate Voices emphasized the imperative for these innovative partnerships to help ensure that America leads the world in the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020 so that American businesses can be competitive in the global economy.

Through tuition assistance, flexible scheduling and partnerships with community colleges, employers can play a critical role in empowering young people to successfully combine postsecondary education and work.

The paper was released in conjunction with the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges, and discusses examples of “Learn and Earn” partnerships with Verizon Wireless and Pima Community College, and with AOL, Year Up and Northern Virginia Community College. The full paper and all of Corporate Voices’ “Learn and Earn” micro business cases are available on Corporate Voices’ website.

Recognizing that reviving U.S. manufacturing and pursuing export-led job growth is a complex subject, there are concrete, positive actions that employers and community colleges can and do take to build our nation’s talent pipeline for future growth and prosperity.