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Originally published Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 5:01 PM

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Guest columnist

Invest now in early learning for better lives and a better workforce

Quality early learning is important for children's development. But guest columnist Bob Watt also argues that dividends from investing in this area will pay off in more people to qualified to fill high-skilled jobs that too often go unfilled.

Special to The Times

A QUICK true-false quiz:

A) One in three manufacturing companies reported shortages of qualified workers at the height of the recession.

B) Half of all new jobs created by 2018 will require education beyond high school.

C) The U.S. high school graduation rate ranks in the bottom third of developed nations.

Unfortunately, all three are true. They are cited in a new report by America's Edge, a national business leader organization advocating for investments in high-quality early-learning programs as critical to strengthening American businesses and the economy. They all illustrate why, despite high unemployment across the country, tens of thousands of good, high-paying jobs are going unfilled — a disturbing trend the recession may be accelerating as jobs have been eliminated or shipped overseas.

It's called "the skills gap," and it's damaging the ability of American companies to compete in the global marketplace and slowing our economic recovery.

According to the report, which examines the impact of the skills gap, one in four companies trying to hire in Washington state in late 2009 and early 2010 had trouble finding qualified job applicants. This translated into more than 10,000 unfilled jobs over the period, even though we had 300,000 unemployed state residents.

How bad is the problem nationwide? The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that half of all new jobs created in our country between 2008 and 2018 will require education beyond high school, with one in three of the new jobs calling for at least a bachelor's degree. In Washington state, we expect 20,000 nursing jobs to come open in the next five years, but 25 percent will likely go unfilled. Gaps are much larger for aircraft mechanics with 79 percent going unfilled. Experts also predict large gaps among accountants and bookkeepers (66 percent unfilled) and installation, maintenance and repair workers (60 percent unfilled).

The damage to our competitive ability will be exceeded only by the lifetime of lowered incomes earned by workers and their families. High school dropouts will earn an estimated $500,000 less over their lifetimes than peers who graduate from high school. This lost income not only translates into a lower standard of living, but also means less spending power and lower contributions to our federal, state and local tax bases.

Where do we look for solutions? Certainly, we need to make every effort to train and retrain our national workforce, and we must continue to improve our K-12 and postsecondary education systems. But investing in a more educated workforce requires quality early education experiences to lay the foundation for the skills businesses will need.

In North Carolina, at-risk participants in a high-quality infant and toddler development program were 74 percent more likely to hold a skilled job at age 21 than similar children who did not attend the program. In Oklahoma, a high-quality pre-kindergarten program improved pre-literacy skills by 52 percent. Children in the model Perry Preschool Program in Michigan were 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school and earned 36 percent more as adults.

Despite such evidence, we're still not investing enough.As a businessman, I understand making the best use of limited funds — something our policy-makers are struggling with right now in Olympia and in Washington, D.C. But funding for what we know works must be protected.

Twenty-five states are reaching fewer than 30 percent of 4-year-old children with publicly funded early education. Head Start, our most important national public pre-kindergarten program for at-risk kids, is so underfunded it serves less than half of all those eligible. And Early Head Start serves less than 5 percent of infants and toddlers from eligible low-income families.

Until we significantly increase these numbers, the skills gap will continue to widen, and the future competitiveness of our country will continue to shrink.

It is time for state and federal policy-makers to understand that quality early learning is a vital component of our education system.We must incorporate high-quality early learning, delivered by parents, caregivers and early learning centers alike, so our children are ready to learn and thrive when they enter kindergarten. Even in this challenging fiscal environment, where the pressure to reduce spending is high, we can and must continue to invest in high quality early learning opportunities for our children.

Bob Watt, a member of the national non-profit business leaders group America's Edge, formerly served as a Vice President of the Boeing Company, deputy mayor of Seattle and president of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. He currently serves on the board of Thrive By Five Washington.

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