As we pass through another celebration of Independence Day, Americans can marvel at the fact that – whether a war for independence, a civil war, world wars or depressions large and small – the history of the nation has been to turn adversity and despair into hope and promise. As we hopefully emerge from the latest economic duress begun a half dozen years ago, we can at least take some comfort from the signs of hope.
Housing starts, the stock market and some retail sales show signs of promise. However, the skills crisis the nation faces is a problem that has yet to be addressed. The facts are that U.S. competitiveness largely rests on our ability to confront and address the mismatch that currently exists in the between the skills needed to fill 21st century jobs and the education currently being provided to our young people.
Before heading into a debate over the future directions we must take, there are some facts we need to review. First off, middle-skill jobs, those jobs that carry middle-class wages and the promise of middle-class lifestyles and the ability to climb the steps of the economic ladder, currently provide employment to 29 million Americans. Labor Department projections tell us that over the next 10 years these jobs are likely to increase by 50 percent, providing opportunity to about 15 million Americans. Increasing high school graduation rates in a majority of U.S. states, coupled with the availability of these jobs, ought to give us comfort.
But they don't. Currently the graduation rate for two-year community colleges, even at the end of six years, hovers at about 25 percent. For the vast majority of young people who drop out, their wages are likely to top off at about $15 per hour for life, with many earning less.
In the middle of the 20th century, education policy in the U.S. changed markedly, and those changes turned problems into economic opportunity for generations of Americans. High school, which had been optional in virtually all states, became mandatory, and high school completion rates skyrocketed. Concurrently, the GI Bill of Rights offered higher education to scores of returning veterans, and college completion skyrocketed as well.
We were at an inflection point, and millions of Americans found their skills directly connected to the skills required for solid careers offering economic hope and opportunity. But that hope depended on the two policy changes outlined. Without them, it is questionable that their future and the future of the U.S. would have been so bright.
There are two changes, if embraced at this point, that could provide that kind of opportunity today. In the United States, what we used to refer to as vocational education, of late called career and technical education, was funded by federal, state and local education funds. The federal money, well over $1 billion last year provided to states and localities via the Perkins Act, provided a good deal of this support.
And yet it funded and supported education programs that look a lot like what the U.S. embraced more than 50 years ago. These funds provided equipment, instruction and related costs to connect education to careers, but the careers they connect to often no longer exist. The Perkins Act is up now for reauthorization and without spending new money, it could produce new value for millions of students.
First, the funds ought to require business involvement to link education to careers. Second, the funds ought to require connection to higher education coursework and curriculums so students can have the workplace skills and the educational preparation and credentials required. Finally, these funds ought to require connection to where the jobs are and are likely to be, as opposed to careers that no longer exist.
With these criteria and metrics that measure success and provide accountability for results, we could gradually see this investment produce returns in the form of well prepared young people able to take the jobs of tomorrow. This modest change in Perkins Act funding, which currently is distributed with no criteria and no metrics for performance, would be step one.
Step two also requires a "Back to the Future" history lesson. In the 1960's, as part of efforts to help young college-age students afford their tuition costs, which then were a fraction of today's costs, the federal government passed the College Work Study Program, which survives to this day. Last year, it too involved over $1 billion in federal funding allowing students to earn, on average, $2,500 to offset tuition costs. These "jobs" largely take place today in college cafeterias and college libraries, providing little skills.
Were these jobs to be expanded to include those with actual career opportunity, in all sectors of the economy, with many of the experiences credit worthy and connected to academics and careers, this federal investment coupled with the Perkins Act change outlined above would take $2 billion in federal investment that currently misses the mark and focus it squarely on the problem.
Why would this produce the needed results for our youth and address the issue of skills and competitiveness? Here is our last proof point. In his last State of the Union address, President Obama called out for praise the success of a new model for career education. In New York City, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a school called P TECH, a collaboration between IBM, the Department of Education and the City University of New York, began providing an six-year program for students where school, college and career were integrated, and the end of the road would be an Associates Degree and a promise to be first in line for jobs at IBM. The students who began this program are already achieving unprecedented results, with most 10th graders already achieving college readiness and nearly half obtaining more than 15 college credits.
Several schools in Chicago, under the leadership of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, adopted the model; at Sarah Goode, a P TECH modeled school in Chicago, attendance and achievement results are particularly strong. Interest in replicating this model is beginning to take hold, and one Governor, New York's Andrew Cuomo, has set forth a state-wide agenda to adopt this model with schools starting in each of the state's 10 economic development regions.
By cobbling together existing resources Cuomo, Bloomberg and Emanuel will see to it that thousands of students get the opportunity to have a clear pathway from school to career, with strong and challenging curriculum tied to workplace skills, internship and job opportunities and mentorships provided in an integrated fashion.
This is a difficult time in the U.S., and it has been especially difficult to achieve legislative agreement on even those actions that would benefit the majority of Americans. But these are two changes that could unite forces on both sides of the argument. Business groups, labor, student organizations and education advocates of all stripes could embrace these changes. And it is not a budget buster, and does not threaten anything other than the status quo.
A review of the facts tells us that change is essential if we are going to address the skills crises and make the U.S. more competitive. Competition from India, China and elsewhere is real, and solutions born of the middle of the 20th century are hardly going to cut it when juxtaposed against 21st century facts. The time for change is upon us, and we can meet the challenge.
Stan Litow is IBM's vice president of Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs and president of the IBM International Foundation.