Contributed Column

Education Matters

by Lisa Ventriss
Vermont Business Roundtable

Our Greatest Natural Resource

Vermont's competitive challenges are not merely coming from New Hampshire and New York. More frequently, they are coming from New Delhi and New Zealand. It matters not whether the company operates as a multi-national, multi-state, or Vermont-based firm or whether it is engaged in exporting or importing, outsourcing or off-shoring.

Whether Vermont's companies can do those things competitively depends on the inventiveness, entrepreneurial talent, adaptability, technical and analytical skills, and motivation of our state's population.

The post-industrial, global economy in which we find ourselves requires a work force that is increasingly technologically literate, adaptable to rapid market changes, capable of continuous learning and retraining, and internationally oriented. That is the nature of the economic development challenge facing businesses today, and a worrisome condition that will become a crisis over the coming decade as an exceptional convergence of demographic changes results in a shortage of skilled workers and citizens.

Over a year ago, a number of Vermont Business Roundtable members began to raise red flags on issues related to both the capacity and capability of the state's current and future work force. In response to those concerns, the Roundtable undertook an investigation of Vermont's work force development programs by examining the various funding sources, program objectives and outcomes, and beneficiaries.

In the course of that investigation, three conclusions were reached: 1) There is no centralized, statewide work force education and training system to address the needs of the 21st century; 2) The forecast of changing demographics in our state population alone puts an urgency on this issue that can no longer be ignored; and 3) Vermont's (and the country's) education system is not adequately preparing our students early enough to see themselves as active participants in a knowledge-based world economy.

For most companies, the commercial future belongs to those who know how to distinguish themselves from the pack. To be truly competitive, Vermont's companies must be able to deliver more added value through its people, products and services.

The Roundtable believes the way to get there is to have an education system that not only better integrates pre-K-12, post-secondary and work-based learning, but also ensures career planning and lifelong learning opportunities for all.

If we truly believe that our people are our greatest natural resource, then we must immediately take steps to cultivate and nurture their development much more strategically than we have in our past.

China, for example, has made it clear that it not only wants to fabricate the next pair of sneakers sold in the United States, but it also eventually wants, and plans, to design them. To reach that goal, China's leadership has been intently focused on investments in its human capital, much more so than Western governments, by training its young people in math, science and computer skills.

Here in the United States, the Business Roundtable (BRT) in Washington, D.C., is calling for a "21st-century version of the post-Sputnik national commitment" to strengthen science, technology, engineering and math education. It will require a national public/private partnership to promote these efforts, and a very focused commitment by the federal government but the drumbeat has begun. Corporate leaders throughout the country are calling for increased funding to a variety of National Science Foundation and Department of Education initiatives that echo China's lead.

To argue its case more fully, the BRT cites a number of worrisome U.S. statistics that show: Of the 1.1 million high school seniors who took a college entrance exam in 2002, only roughly 5 percent planned to pursue a degree in engineering; in 2000, nearly 35 percent of freshmen in two-year colleges were enrolled in remedial mathematics courses; and 45 percent of those at four-year colleges took one or two remedial courses in mathematics before enrolling in credit-bearing math classes.

The Vermont Business Roundtable, under the joint leadership of Bob Clarke, chancellor of Vermont State Colleges, and Bill Stritzler, CEO of Smugglers' Notch Resort, has committed itself to undertake a new policy initiative that will promote the economic and social wellbeing of Vermont and Vermonters by developing strategies to address the state's projected skilled-worker/citizen shortage.

It should worry everyone greatly and help to create a sense of urgency that here in Vermont, only 34 percent of ninth-graders will enroll in college in four years, a decline of 12 percent over the last decade and the highest in the nation; in some school systems the high school dropout rate exceeds 30 percent; and the aging population of Vermont and outflow of younger adults portends a work force crisis of historic proportions.

It is understood that investments in human capital represent but one of the four major factors that foster a state's economic development, the others being access to capital, infrastructure investments, and quality of life factors. Of the four, it can be argued, however, that the most important is investments in human capital. It holds the key to so much for so many.

Vermont businesses urgently need a work force that is increasingly technologically literate, adaptable to rapid market changes, capable of continuous learning and retraining, and internationally oriented. Having an education system that not only better integrates pre-K-12, post-secondary and work-based learning, but also ensures career planning and lifelong learning opportunities for all, is a non-negotiable. It creates a win-win for all Vermonters. •

Lisa Ventriss is president of the Vermont Business Roundtable.

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