The Challenge of Leaders – Developing the Workforce of Tomorrow

For nearly 200 years, the nature of America’s labor force has evolved as a result of significant economic and societal influences. At the height of the industrial revolution, mass immigration shaped the American workforce, fueling much of the country’s economic growth in the early 20thcentury. In the 1950s, the Civil Rights movement challenged conventional wisdom regarding minorities in the workplace, and pushed for greater representation and opportunities. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a new wave of workers entered corporate America in a variety of fields, infusing much needed diversity in terms of background, experience and perspective. Women seeking more opportunities and professional advancement soon followed. Together, these groups have fundamentally changed the workplace, creating new social contracts, and recruitment and development programs that have influenced workforce strategies for decades.

Today, as businesses face increased competition, compounded by the rapid pace of change, technological breakthroughs and shifting demographics, we find ourselves redefining the very nature of work and what it will mean for the next generation of workers. As a country, our future prosperity depends on a workforce that is ready and able to compete in an increasingly global economy.

I believe America’s next wave of workers will be characterized not only by their race, gender or place of birth, but by their skills, and ability to effectively navigate a highly dynamic and competitive marketplace. Knowledge, creativity, and collaborative problem solving will be the hallmark of the 21st century workforce. As leaders, we must begin now to shape the workforce of tomorrow. With huge pools of untapped potential, our challenge is to figure out how we can push everyone forward.

Better align education to support both academic achievement and career readiness

Successful leaders recognize the value from human capital is greater than the value gained from business strategies and financial resources. We also know that the key to growth and prosperity is to unlock and nurture human potential from an early age. Yet, all too often, we see the downstream effect of poorly educated individuals who struggle to find their place in the world of work.

The sad truth is that many of our young people are coming into the workforce ill prepared to successfully operate in an increasingly complex knowledge- and technology-based global economy. Today’s education systems are wrestling with changing demographics, misaligned priorities, poor academic quality and financial constraints.

I recognize that education reform is a complex issue that is not easily solved. But a good starting point would be to align educational priorities with the needs of future workers. Whether they migrate to the private sector, public service or non-profit organizations, all future workers will need a common set of applied skills including: critical thinking, communication, creativity, leadership and multi-cultural competence, as well as business literacy and knowledge of market-based economies. If we are to effectively compete in the global economy, we also must shore up our STEM education, which includes the fields of science, engineering, technology and mathematics. We also need to make it easier for today’s young immigrants who come to the U.S. for college to stay after they graduate.

Public/Private partnerships are part of the solution

Educators, public officials, not-for-profit and for-profit business leaders all have a role to play in shaping the next generation of workers. For example, although the business community can’t close educational gaps per se, we can provide a clearer sense of what competencies are needed today and in the future. We also can work with local and national organizations to provide clarity of purpose and vision, and create pathways for young people to develop skills and gain relevant work experiences.

As a member of the Board of the National Academy Foundation (NAF) I have seen first-hand how public/private partnerships can increase college and career readiness. NAF has successfully created a national network of Career Academies for underserved high school students. The academies provide high-quality learning opportunities linked to growing industries including Finance, Information Technology, Engineering, Health Sciences, and Hospitality & Tourism. Students have access to industry-specific curricula, work-based learning experiences, and relationships with business professionals.

Of the more than 50,000 students who attend NAF Academies across the country each year, 90 percent graduate on time, and four out of five go on to post-secondary education. In addition, 85 percent of five- and 10-year alumni are working in professional fields.

NAF is a great example of how operating at the intersection of private, public and non-profit sectors can be a positive force for change. By tapping into the business community, NAF is able to provide a broad range of talent, experience, knowledge and financial resources to support its programs and provide students with “real world” experiences.

We can do more

I believe leaders across all sectors need to take a more active role in developing future workers. We must be advocates for change and lead the way by:

  • Clearly articulating how the nature of work is changing, and the societal and economic implications of this change;
  • Developing workforce strategies that outline the types of jobs, skills and knowledge needed; Creating opportunities for young people to gain skills and experience such as internships, co-op jobs, shadow programs;
  • Creating more entry-level positions with broadly defined career paths that can evolve; and Investing in national and local educational programs to help position young people for lifelong success.

As we shape the next wave of workers, unlocking their potential is essential to our country’s long-term economic growth and prosperity. Aligning our educational systems to support both academic achievement and career readiness is an important step in that process. Further momentum will come as all sectors work together and apply their expertise and resources. It is in all of our best interests to do so.