Quality early learning can be the bridge to a skilled workforce
We must educate our children earlier and do it much better by focusing more attention and resources on quality early learning, write guest commentators Charlie Liekweg and Kathy Lombardo.
Special to The Times
A QUICK question for the 60,000 Washington high-school seniors preparing to graduate: Do you have the soft skills employers now are demanding in their new workers?
It may be news to many of you, but virtually all occupations now require a proficiency in these so-called "soft" skills. Employers want to hire workers who can communicate and collaborate well, think critically and express themselves clearly. In addition, Washington businesses foresee a major demand for skills needed in specific occupations — such as those for the fast-growing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs.
Finding qualified workers has become so difficult that it's already impacting the bottom line of many businesses. More than half of all employers in our state have reported lower productivity, more than a third have been prevented from expanding their facilities, and nearly a third say they were unable to develop new services or products, according to a survey by the Washington Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board. Almost 10 percent had to move some operations out of state.
According to our business-leaders group America's Edge, in each year from 2014 to 2019, our state will need an additional 9,000 individuals who have completed the education or training for middle-skills jobs — more than high school but less than a four-year degree — and 10,000 individuals with a bachelor's degree.
How do we correct this serious threat to our long-term economic health?
This year's graduates are already out the door. But we still have a chance to make investments in future graduates. Clearly, we must train and retrain our current workforce and look for ways to improve our K-12 education system. But we must also build a strong foundation to reach children in their earliest years when the learning curve is straight up.
We must educate our children earlier and do it much better by focusing more attention and resources on quality early learning.
Extensive research confirms that quality early learning can provide the beginning of a pipeline of skilled workers. A decades-long study released this year of North Carolina's Abecedarian quality early-education project showed that participating pre-K students were four times more likely to earn a four-year degree by age 30, and were 42 percent more likely to have been consistently employed than those who did not participate.
Studies of other quality early programs have shown similar results:
• Students who participated in Michigan's high-quality Perry Preschool were 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school;
• Students who participated in Chicago's Child-Parent Centers were up to 31 percent more likely to hold a job considered semiskilled or higher; and
• Participants in the Perry Preschool program went on to earn up to 36 percent more as adults compared with nonparticipants.
Congress, through the appropriations process for the 2013 fiscal year, has an opportunity to improve the quality of — and access to — early care and education through funding for Head Start, Early Head Start, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, and the Early Learning Challenge in the Race to the Top program.
Sen. Patty Murray, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has long been a champion for investments in early care and education. We support her in efforts to maintain — and to even increase — funding for these crucial investments.
Let's engage in a vitally important discussion on education reform. Quality early care and education, upon which success in school and career can be built, must be part of the equation.Charlie Liekweg, left, retired chief executive of AAA of Washington, and Kathy Lombardo, a former senior vice president of CH2M Hill engineering, are members of America's Edge, which advocates for the economic and social importance of quality early learning.