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Everywhere one looks these days, there are fresh stories about U.S. businesses struggling to find employees with the right skills to fill their job openings. From high-tech manufacturing to health care, employers are short of qualified candidates – even while many Americans are desperately seeking work.

This “skills gap” has become a dominant topic of conversation in the education and business worlds – and it is the top issue I deal with at Business Roundtable.

About a year ago, Business Roundtable partnered with Change the Equation to ask CEOs just how big a problem the skills gap actually is, based on the principle that it is always helpful to have numbers to make the case for policy change, to help inform our efforts. Despite the broad coverage of the issue, and despite its importance to many CEOs, we were still surprised by the results.

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Of the 126 CEOs who took the survey, nearly 98 percent said that the skills gap was a problem for their companies. The CEOs reported that the gap affected all levels of jobs, from entry level to those requiring experience, and that they particularly struggled to find candidates with the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills needed for technical positions that are the foundation of economic growth.

These results prompted us to step up our efforts to identify and support effective programs in the increasingly connected worlds of education, training and work. One year later, we have some encouraging progress to report, but also have a clear understanding that righting this ship will take some time. That’s why Business Roundtable is taking a multipronged approach to confront the issue head on.

It all starts with our longstanding role as a leading voice in K-12 education, especially for the early grades. Business Roundtable remains vocal in supporting challenging academic standards in primary and secondary education. States should maintain flexibility in what precise standards they adopt, but they must be tied to what colleges, employers and the military expect from students. The standards must also be benchmarked against the best ones used by our global competitors.

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In Washington, we continue to urge policymakers to enact legislation that modernizes the U.S. education system and raises the bar for students and schools alike. We publicly advocated for strong accountability in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization – and are gratified that the new law meets CEO expectations.

Yes, the plate is full, but the work to close the skills gap is too important to delay.

Our focus continues after high school graduation as well. That is why our CEOs are calling for a modernized Higher Education Act and are working to ensure career and technical education programs authorized under the Perkins Act align with employer needs.

Government, of course, cannot solve all problems. Business Roundtable is also building public-private partnerships to better connect what students are learning to what businesses need. Working with the Business-Higher Education Forum, we’re bringing together leaders from the business community and higher education to transform undergraduate education in emerging fields such as data analytics and cybersecurity. The intended result: College-level students becoming credentialed employees in key economic sectors.

Truly closing the skills gap, however, will require a transformation of the relationship between employers and employees – helping create a nation of life-long learners. That is the primary reason why we have worked so hard over the last year to strengthen the National Network of Business and Industry Associations, an innovative partnership between Business Roundtable and ACT Foundation. This collaborative effort joins 25 organizations focused on better connecting learning and work.

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Its most recent success is Work-and-Learn in Action, an inside view of 15 innovative and successful models for incorporating work-and-learn programs (modernized apprenticeships are just one example) into company operations. From a program helping to turn Chicago high schoolers into IT experts to an accredited college that produces the next generation of shipbuilders, the guide has something to offer almost every employer. Business Roundtable members AT&T Inc., General Motors Co., Huntington Ingalls Industries, Lockheed Martin and Medtronic Inc. are featured in the guide.

The National Network is also pressing hard to develop tools that: articulate the common employability skills required for workers across all career fields; rethink how various professional organizations build credentials to help workers move easily between professions; and increase the use of competency-based hiring practices across the entire economy.

Yes, the plate is full, but the work to close the skills gap is too important to delay. Just as the gap did not develop overnight, the solutions will take time to come to fruition.

Please send me an email if you would like to learn more or get involved with any of these efforts.

Dane Linn, a Vice President at Business Roundtable, oversees the Education & Workforce Committee, advancing Business Roundtable positions on education reform, U.S. innovation capacity and workforce preparedness.

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