Although we are experiencing high unemployment and joblessness, employers continue to have trouble finding skilled and educated employees. In order to close this education and skills gap, Congress must take a hard look at the education policies that shape the nation’s talent pool and determine the economic future of all its citizens.

Bringing attention to these issues and the newest ideas and trends in education reform, NBC News hosted its second annual Education Nation Summit last week in New York City, where parents, educators and students met with leaders in politics, business and technology to explore the challenges and opportunities in education today. Over the past year, NBC News has been committed to engaging policymakers and the public through continued coverage on the state of education. The event addressed the developments, challenges and progress of the past year, and identified and explored new, exciting opportunities to reinvent America as an Education Nation.

As part of a special Education Nation feature, on Thursday, September 29 Angela Cobb, leader of the New Options Project and Director of Return On Inspiration Labs, spoke with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell about how the New Options Project is working to connect out-of-school young adults ages 16-24 with meaningful career opportunities through the introduction of innovative tools and approaches.

“Education and training is a really important component for young adults who have become disconnected from the traditional education system and from work.  The first step for many young adults is connecting them to employment, so that they can…start to identify career paths and career options.  There is then greater context for their education, so it then makes more sense for them to go get their GED or high school diploma, get technical training or begin pursuing coursework at a community college or four-year college.”

Corporate Voices is a partner in the New Options Project, a multi-year initiative of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, that seeks to connect more than four million young adults with no high school diploma to meaningful career opportunities that match their talents and skills. New Options works to connect employer talent needs with new sources of previously undeveloped talent. Local work zones are used to create and test innovative products and market-based approaches that provide pathways to employment, which are supported by national initiatives and movement building to influence perceptions.

Through its work with the New Options Project, Corporate Voices is committed to identifying and spotlighting businesses that make significant contributions to enterprising pathways. Recently AOL, Accenture, Bank of America, CVS Caremark, Expeditors, H.E.B. and Southwire were highlighted in a series of micro-business case studies published by Corporate Voices for their commitment to providing career training to low-income young adults.

An equally innovative and exciting partnership is between Corporate Voices’ corporate partner IBM and its innovative Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) program, a joint effort with the City University of New York and the city’s Department of Education. P-TECH enables students to begin their college and professional lives more quickly and with more support than the typical school-to-work pathway. Graduates of P-TECH have the opportunity to earn an associate degree and leave the school with the skills and knowledge they need in order to continue their studies or step seamlessly into competitive jobs in the information technology (IT) industry.

The new school has even caught the attention of President Obama, who spotlighted it this week in remarks about education reform. It was also featured at the COMMIT! Forum in New York City, alongside Southwire’s flagship training program 12 for Life.

As policymakers wrestle with the task of reducing our nation’s deficit and at the same time creating an atmosphere that will promote job creation, they must not lose sight of the impact that education outcomes have on the vitality of the nation’s workforce.  The work with the New Options Project and these best practice employers show that Congress must align education policies with the talent needs of employers to help close the skills gap, to connect talent with employment and to encourage business to create economic growth and upward mobility through on-the-job training and ongoing human capital development.   Efforts like these will go a long way toward strengthening our future economic competitiveness. More specifically, Corporate Voices and its partners in the New Options Project ask Congress to make workforce needs central and to shape desired education outcomes by following these key principles:

  • Ensure complete skills development, including both academic and workforce skills.
  • Utilize contextualized and work-based learning.
  • Dramatically raise high school graduation rates.
  • Focus on the lowest-performing schools and hold them accountable.
  • Develop Enterprising Pathways
  • Promote post-secondary completion, not just enrollment.

Corporate Voices encourages you to visit its website to learn more about the New Options Project and the work other companies are doing to connect their own needs with the skills development of previously untapped talent.

By Tony Hurst, Program Associate, Corporate Voices for Working Families

In a recent blog, Nicole Yohalem, of the Forum for Youth Investment, described the Gateway to College program at Portland Community College which helps youth who have dropped out of high school earn a diploma and college credit concurrently. Gateway to College acknowledges that only two-thirds of high school students graduate, while only 20 percent of those who enter two-year institutions complete their degree within three years.

At Corporate Voices for Working Families, for example, we are working hard to address this national challenge and others related to the inadequate preparation of young adults to excel in the 21st century economy.  With support from the New Options Project from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we are helping to engage the business community to identify and support alternative pathways to education and employment for disconnected young adults.

Gateway to College pairs 16-to-21 year olds with a mentor to guide them through the rigors of classroom expectations and study habits, through to college placement exams and career choices. The program began in 2000 and with the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and has been replicated across the United States.

In a parallel effort, Corporate Voices, with the Forum for Youth Investment, is part of the Ready by 21® partnership, which works to prepare youth for college, work and life.  And with generous support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Corporate Voices is continuing to bring the business perspective to the nation’s agenda for postsecondary completion—a critical prerequisite to ensuring a skilled talent pool for a competitive future.

To help employers learn about and share their best practices with each other, we have highlighted several companies in Learn and Earn Micro-Business Case Studies that are working with partners in the educational system to help future and current workers earn a wage while gaining a postsecondary credential.

One example is Georgia Power, which has reached out and partnered with local high schools to offer paid internships so that young people gain the necessary workplace skills. All graduates are eligible for full-time employment at Georgia Power and are much more prepared to enter college. The program has been so successful that its implementation has already begun in Ohio, North Carolina and Washington.

Additionally, UPS partnered with community members in Louisville, Kentucky, to create Metropolitan College in order to reduce their turnover rate that was as high as 70 percent in the late 1990s.  Metropolitan College provides employees an opportunity to earn college credit while still working. The results have been incredible, as turnover rates are now below 20 percent and many of these graduates have worked their way through various career pathways into a mixture of divisions within the company.

And finally, in a recently published report, From an “Ill-Prepared” to a Well Prepared Workforce, Corporate Voices acknowledges that there is a growing education and skills gap perpetuated by students leaving the education systems without the skills they need to succeed.

Through Corporate Voices’ Learn and Earn initiative we work to highlight a variety of ways in which business and community college leaders can partner and work together to prepare the current and future workforce. Business and education must come together to begin a dialogue and examine best practices to ensure that young adults will have the proper skills to succeed in the 21st century job setting.

Both of these best-practice cases highlight companies that are initiating community partnerships to ensure they have a more skilled workforce.  Like Gateway to College, these companies value the importance of aiding their employees in furthering their post-secondary credentials and helping them to ensure they have the skills they need to succeed at work.  If you have a potential Learn and Earn case study, please contact Corporate Voices.