Corporate Voices' partner companies and friends stand in front of the U.S. Capitol Building during the 2011 Annual Partners Meeting

On June 15-17, Corporate Voices held its 2011 Annual Meeting and 10th Anniversary Celebration (view photos)– marking a decade of success in shaping corporate and public policies affecting the lives of working families. Over 100 leaders from the business, public policy, non-profit and research communities gathered at this convening to discuss issues critical to the future competitiveness of American business– including workplace flexibility and the role businesses play in helping workers obtain college degrees and helping disadvantaged youth integrate into the workforce.

This meeting occurred at a time when our national dialogue is focused on how to stimulate slow economic and job growth, and highlighted what best-practice corporate leaders are doing to build a stronger and more competitive workforce for the future.

At a bi-partisan Congressional Briefing on June 15 that was held in conjunction with the annual meeting, Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) commented that the issues that Corporate Voices and its partner companies are engaged in are more important than ever, even though the dialogue on Capitol Hill is currently dominated by a debate over the size of the federal budget. She said,

“We’ve been colleagues and collaborators in this effort to bring the corporate community into policy discussions to improve the lives of working families. We need your corporate voices at this time. We have an environment where cutting spending is the order of the day. We need business to make its voice heard on key issues like early education, K-12 and higher education. It is important that businesses are engaged in crafting policies that help working families.”

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) echoed Rep. DeLauro’s comments, emphasizing that even as the economy recovers, investing in the training and education of our workforce will be necessary for our long-term ability to compete on the global stage. She said,

“Nearly 30 million people will need a postsecondary education in 2018…In addition to an infrastructure deficit, we have an education and a skills deficit…The challenge we have is to bridge that skills gap. We need to invest in skills and careers, from K-12 to college completion and beyond to build a strong talent pipeline…This is fundamentally about where we want middle-class families to be in decades to come.”

As John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, said in a panel focusing on postsecondary education and Learn and Earn best practice models later in the meeting,

“To right the ship, and to meet President Obama’s college completion goal by 2020, we will have to support the work Corporate Voices is doing—thank God you exist!”

Indeed, with a skills gap preventing employers from hiring the talent they need and hindering workers who want to find suitable jobs, Corporate Voices is focusing, through its Learn and Earn initiative, on documenting and sharing best practice examples of how employers are supporting talent development and college completion among their workers. Through Learn and Earn talent development models, businesses take a leading role in investing in the value of their workforce while also helping people complete their postsecondary education and increase their value in the labor market.

Four new case studies that Corporate Voices has published in its Learn and Earn series document the partnerships that the Health Careers Collaborative, PG&E, Walmart and the Western Association of Food Chains have cultivated with community colleges and other education providers to train their workforces and make significant contributions to college completion.

A skilled and well-educated workforce is increasingly important for businesses to be able to compete internationally, and for workers to be able to progress in their careers. As Celia Swanson, Senior Vice President for Talent Development at Walmart U.S. said,

“While a college degree is not required [for many of our positions], we believe a college education is needed to prepare future leaders in our organization. Education is the single biggest advantage we can give workers in the 21st century.”

On a panel titled, “Investing in Skills Development and Education: Creating Opportunity” speakers also addressed how employers could play an important role in helping to integrate into the workforce the 4-6 million disadvantaged youth that are not in school or at work. Mike Wiggins, Executive Vice President for Human Resources at Southwire, described how his company supports 12 for Life, a cooperative education program that helps increase high school graduation rates in communities and helps at-risk youth have a better chance at work and life.

During a private White House briefing on June 16, senior White House staff addressed Corporate Voices’ partner companies, and emphasized the central role that workplace flexibility needs to play in harnessing the talent of our workforce and helping mothers, fathers, students, caregivers and mature workers balance the demands of work and life. Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, said at the briefing,

“With Baxter International estimating a return on investment of $1.73 for its work-life programs and with more than 2,500 employees at Ernst & Young using a flexible work arrangement, there is clearly demand in the marketplace for flexibility…If we want to win the future, if we want to be number 1, we have to invest in people. Flexibility is the best way [to do that]—it’s good for communities, families and the country.”

Highlighting Corporate Voices’ efforts to expand the use of flexibility in the business community through its national workplace flexibility campaign, Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff for the First Lady said,

“Your Statement of Support for Expanding Workplace Flexibility is so important for our national economic competitiveness. I challenge you to continue your national flexibility challenge to the business community.”

As part of leading the national workplace flexibility campaign to spread awareness about the positive business and employee benefits of flexibility, Corporate Voices has conducted focus group research on the use of flexibility across a variety of sectors, has documented success stories of flexibility best practices and has updated research on the business impacts of flexibility, both globally and domestically.

In a listening session on the final day with Brenda Dann-Messier, Assistant Secretary of the Office of Vocational and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education, Corporate Voices’ partner companies had the opportunity to share their experiences with their workforce training programs and their relationships with educational institutions. She said,

“It’s important for us to discuss the challenges in preparing students for high-wage, high-demand and high-growth job sectors. You have the corporate voice that you’re bringing to the table—and that’s very important.”

After hearing about the numerous partnerships that companies like H-E-B, Boeing and others are cultivating with colleges to train their workforces, Ms. Dann-Messier suggested that a viable and useful role for government would be to: help reduce barriers to industry-education partnerships, and to have the Department of Education play a central and active role, in partnership with Corporate Voices, to support the scalability of local successes by acting as a national convener of best practices. This approach could harness national networks and help to create state or regional strategies to support wide-scale change. We will report on progress on this convening in the weeks ahead.

The positive discussion about innovative business practices that are shaping the future workforce and workplace was encouraging, and Corporate Voices looks forward to building on these successes in the weeks and months ahead.