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Business Involvement in Education: 'Show Up or Shut Up'

Workforce development, the skills gap, talent pipeline—these are all buzzwords that were heard loudly last week at a series of Washington, DC events. Heather Singmaster, Assistant Director at Asia Society and editor of this blog, shares what she heard and how it compares to international best practice.

by Heather Singmaster

In October, I had the opportunity to participate in an in-depth learning tour of Switzerland's vocational and education training system (VET), widely regarded as one of the best school-to-work career technical education (CTE) systems in the world. The U.S. delegation learned some key lessons that could assist in addressing the challenges of our CTE reform. Most striking about the Swiss system is that it is built to meet the needs of business and is (largely) responsive to them. It therefore receives enormous support from employers. 

Meanwhile, here in America it is no secret that we lack business involvement in an ongoing, systematic way. Sure, there are many great one-off or regional examples, such as the work that Toyota has done to build an advanced manufacturing technician program to train not only workers for Toyota, but a pipeline of talent for other manufacturing companies as well. However, these programs are not as comprehensive and don't have the societal buy-in you see in places like Switzerland and Singapore. A series of meetings in Washington, DC last week showed growing awareness of the problem and some potential solutions.

Business Has to Actively Participate
"Show up or shut up." This was the challenge Danny Vargas, President of VarCom Solutions LLC, had for his businesses colleagues across the country, as he spoke at the release of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's report, Managing the Talent Pipeline: A New Approach to Closing the Skills Gap. He explained that business and industry must come to the table and actively participate in the education system that already exists—a system that tax payers spend a lot of money on.

In Switzerland, the partners in the VET system are the federal government, states, and business. The role of the federal government is to provide quality control, contribute research, and assist with assessment. The states run the training schools. Businesses offer apprenticeship positions, which are organized through industry associations. Cost-benefit analyses show that for most Swiss employers, the costs in wages and associated training expenses over the standard three- or four-year apprenticeship are offset by the bottom-line increases in productivity. It is a good return on investment for the companies. Meanwhile, students earn money, learn curricular content and skills, and become productive members of the workforce. It's a win/win for the Swiss.

At the National Manufacturing Institute's International Symposium on Manufacturing Workforce Solutions, there was much discussion by industry leaders of moving away from the "just-in-time fill strategy" and moving to a longer-term, strategic pipeline approach. One highlighted example is the Steering Committee of Advanced Manufacturing Partnership 2.0, which is a working group of President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, to bring a cross-sector approach (industry, academia, and labor) to strengthen the advanced manufacturing sector and ensure there is a training pipeline to support it.

Education: Adapt or Die
Danny Vargas provided another bit of advice for the education and policy community members in the audience: "Adapt or die." In other words, education training programs must be more flexible to meet the needs of industry. Also on the panel was Greg Bashore, Global Director of Talent Acquisition and Workforce Development for Alcoa, who made the point that employers need to be seen as customers of the public education system.

An international illustration of this point was given at the OECD Washington Center during an event to release their new report, Job Creation and Local Economic Development. OECD expert Sylvain Giguère cited the example of an area in Northern Italy that has been making shoes for centuries. As the shoemaking process became cheaper and began to be outsourced to Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, the industry had to figure out what to do: abandon shoemaking, or innovate with a more expensive, higher-quality product? They decided to band together and partner with a local polytechnic institute which created a program to assist them in becoming more innovative while upgrading their skills so they could develop new products and market them. 

Back at the Chamber event, John Barge, Georgia Superintendent of Education, spoke about his efforts to reform CTE at the K-12 level. Georgia has created career pathways for students, which begin with building career awareness at the elementary level. At the middle school level, students do more in-depth career exploration. This is similar to Switzerland, where students begin a process referred to as "sniffing" in grade 7: They spend time at companies to see if they are interested in those industries and in pursuing an apprenticeship in one of them.

In Georgia's high schools, students have access to classes in 17 different career clusters. Each cluster has an advisory committee, half of which is made up of business and industry working in that sector. Giguère emphasized that clusters, while a good strategy, can be limiting if only focused on a few areas. Barge is addressing that concern in Georgia by ensuring the clusters remain flexible to the needs of local business. He pointed to the example of a Southern Georgia school district where the primary industry is shipping, so he started a maritime logistics pathway to meet local workforce needs.

The voice of business is needed to ensure we are producing students with the skills and knowledge needed for the workforce of today and of tomorrow. Business needs to not only show up, but to work as partners with education—that is the only way we will be able to create a meaningful system that produces lifelong learners who are productive workers and citizens. Education and policy similarly must also commit to a more purposeful approach to their relationships with business. Without a concerted effort on both parts, we will be all be living with the consequences.

Follow Heather and Asia Society on Twitter. 

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