Even at the height of the recent recession, with 300,000 people out of jobs in Washington state, as many as 10,000 jobs went unfilled because employers could not find workers with the skills to fill them.
These alarming numbers point to a skills gap that is hampering our state’s economic recovery and threatening our long-term economic security.
During late 2009 and early 2010, one in four Washington companies attempting to hire had difficulty finding qualified applicants to fill open jobs. This caused Washington businesses to lower overall productivity, delay facility expansion, forego new services and product lines, or move some operations out of state.
What can we do to expand the pool of highly skilled workers and get our economy back on track?
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The answer might surprise you. High-quality early learning programs provide the educational jump-start that many children need to succeed in school and later in life while also helping businesses grow our skilled work force over the long term.
Perhaps looking at our youngest children as a critical component to economic growth seems too removed. It is not.
According to a recent report by the national business group, America’s Edge, 60 percent of children nationwide are entering kindergarten without the pre-math and pre-literacy skills needed to begin a successful journey through school. Many children start school without knowing how to count to 10 or to recognize letters of the alphabet. Unless we correct this situation, we will continue to see children entering kindergarten ready to fail.
Consider what’s in store for our economy in the near future. By 2018, it’s estimated that 67 percent of all jobs in Washington will require postsecondary education. Those jobs will be hard to fill when 32 percent of our high school students do not graduate on time. A single class of high school dropouts in the U.S. will earn $335 billion less over their lifetimes than their peers with a high school diploma. That translates into less spending power, reduced contributions to the tax base and lower productivity.
How do quality early learning programs help?
According to the America’s Edge report, children who participated in a high-quality early learning program in Michigan were 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school and earned 36 percent more as adults. Children in another high-quality program were 74 percent more likely to hold a skilled job at age 21 than similar children who did not participate in the program.
There is no quick fix to the skills gap and our state’s economic recovery. However, if we are serious about strengthening our economic position in the global marketplace, state and federal early learning programs must be continued, improved and grown.
At a recent news conference in Olympia, state legislators — from both sides of the aisle — joined business leaders in expressing concern about the skills gap and their commitment to continued funding for Washington’s early learning programs, including the early childhood education and assistance program. Sens. Rosemary McAuliffe and Steve Litzow and Reps. Roger Goodman and Maureen Walsh voiced their support for these programs and vowed to protect their funding, which is vital to Washington state’s economic growth.
We all know that these are difficult times and that difficult budget choices will have to be made. But cutting early learning programs with a proven track record is not good for Washington businesses or our state’s economy.
Mike Edwards is director of Thurston First Bank and former Supervisor of Banking for the State of Washington. An Olympia resident, Edwards is a past president of the Economic Development Council of Thurston County.