This post was contributed by Donna Klein, Executive Chair and CEO of Corporate Voices for Working Families.

“We’re throwing away an enormous amount of intellectual talent in our country.”  Such is the sentiment expressed by Dr. James Applegate, Vice President of the Lumina Foundation, at the Corporate Voices for Working Families annual meeting dedicated to Exploring the Challenges of the American Workplace.   Applegate was joined by Dr. Parminder Jassal, Program Officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and Ellen Glazerman, President of the Ernst & Young Foundation in a discussion with national business leaders looking at the Business Case for Investments in Postsecondary Education Completion.

Dr. Applegate laid out the challenge:  The nation will need 23 million more postsecondary degrees than we’re on track to produce by 2025. He said, “If we don’t begin to move the dial, the skills gap that’s causing us so much pain right now will be nothing in comparison to what we’re facing.”  This is a pain that is being keenly felt by employers across the nation.  Recently, 52% of U.S. employers report difficulty filling jobs due to the shortage of available talent. They cite lack of experience, skills, or knowledge as the primary reason for the difficult in filling positions (Manpower 2011).

At the same time, low-skilled individuals— the future talent of this nation— are locked out of jobs that offer economic sustainability.  Ellen Glazerman pointed out that education is the “greatest differentiator” in predicting a young person’s success throughout life.  “We must help first-generation and underrepresented students to understand the possibilities offered by higher education and education attainment,” she noted.

Corporate Voices’ business leaders heard that because appropriately educated and skilled talent is foundational to businesses’ ability to compete in the global marketplace, it is critical for employers to understand the contributions they can make to reach the postsecondary completion goal cited by Lumina, which aligns with the Gates Foundation focus to increase postsecondary attainment for low income 16-26 year olds.  Dr. Jassel reinforced the key point that, “Success will require active engagement from the business community to make needed changes in education.  There is a role for everyone here.”

Private and corporate foundations are playing a pivotal role in goal-setting, research, replication and implementation of programs of study aimed at dramatically boosting the number of young Americans completing a postsecondary credential in the next decade or so.  These foundation leaders, in addition to other higher education, business and political leaders, are looking to the higher education system, with a focus on America’s 1,100 community colleges, to help bridge the skills gap.  Recently, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) spotlighted both the great opportunities and serious challenges ahead for the community college sector. Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future details community college “student success rates that are unacceptably low, employment preparation that is inadequately connected to job-market needs, and disconnections in transitions between high schools, community colleges, and baccalaureate institutions.”

Clearly, community colleges and business must partner to overcome the talent crisis and create a globally competitive workforce.  Corporate Voices has been a leader in identifying and promoting innovative Learn and Earn partnerships across the country that are doing just that. As part of our Learn and Earn micro business case study series, we have has documented a range of these best practice talent development partnerships – often between businesses and community colleges.  We just released early findings from our research in developing these case studies, A Talent Development Solution: Exploring Business Drivers and Returns in Learn and Earn Partnerships, which documents the returns employers enjoy in these partnerships.  A pathway has been established.  Now, employers across this nation must join in embracing a talent development solution whose time is now.