February 18, 1999
There's lots of talk about improving workforce development. One group is leading by example: our fourth-grade students
By Ed Reinfurt
If we want to do something vital to improve New York's business climate, we should emulate our fourth-graders.
That's right: Today, the New Yorkers making the most persuasive case for a more competitive New York in the 21st century may be our nine-year-olds.
What our schoolkids are saying is: The key to our future is our commitment to higher performance standards-and we're not afraid of them.
These kids are delivering this forceful message with their fearless handling of tough new reading tests.
I've read that test and compared it to previous tests. It's harder. But you don't hear fourth-graders complaining. They seem to know that standards must be set higher for them to succeed.
Of course, plenty of us grown-ups at least say the same things.
New Yorkers in all sectors-business, labor, government, education-recognize that workforce development is one of our state's pressing priorities.
We agree on the importance of "workforce development" and on the need to define it broadly. We recognize that it's no longer a training program here or a continuing education course there, but rather a process that begins in kindergarten and continues until retirement. It addresses the needs of the employed, the unemployed, the underemployed and the not-yet-employed.
Perhaps most importantly, we agree that we need greater accountability in our job-training programs.
But agreeing on the concerns is not the same as acting to address them.
For nearly two years, the grown-up sectors have been talking about making a broader commitment to job training and workforce development at all levels.
In finally agreeing to the federal Workforce Development Investment Act last August, we even got some modest improvements. There is a clearer and much stronger state government commitment to job training investments that are more employer-focused and more performance-oriented.
But have our job-training providers embraced higher standards and the need for more accountability with the same gusto as our fourth-graders? I don't think we can make that claim.
In some sectors, there has been too much hand-wringing about the tough new standards and the inevitable discomfort that will result from change needed to meet those standards. In truth, some institutions that agree "we need to change" and "we can change" are hesitating before saying "we will change."
Thankfully, our fourth-graders are wiser than that. They recognize the challenge of higher standards as an opportunity.
All New Yorkers in business, labor, government and education should sense and seize the same opportunity. This is our chance to restructure where restructuring is needed; to reinvigorate institutions in which complacency has reigned; to set higher expectations and higher standards-not just for our kids, but for all of us.
If we don't follow our fourth-graders' lead, we'll have to look them in the eye and explain why we're shying away from a challenge they embraced. We grown-ups should refuse to do that.
Ed Reinfurt is vice president of The Business Council.