Testimony to Senate Committees on Education; Commerce, Economic Development and Small Business; Labor; Agriculture


Senate Majority Task Force on Critical Choices

Preparing Today's Youth for the Workplace

Presented by
Kenneth Adams
May 28, 2008

Senators Saland, Alesi, Robach, Young and Golden, thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony before you today on the critical role education plays in the our State's workforce preparation – and the link between workforce preparedness and our state's economic competitiveness.

I am Kenneth Adams, President and CEO of The Business Council of New York State, representing over 3,100 businesses large and small across our state – all of which are relying on a “talent pipeline” — well prepared students — to assure their ability to grow in New York State.

Much has been written about the looming skills gap in this country – that is, the disconnect between the skills necessary to remain competitive in a global economy and the workforce and education system which prepares our current and future workforce. We've all seen and read economic analyses about the transition from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy, the “creative class” economy, and the “flattening forces” which result from the pace of change in a global economy. Whether you believe the varying economic analyses, or subscribe to any particular theory on where we are and where we should be headed, one thing remains true: the pace of change in the world of business is real and survival often depends on a business' ability to be ahead of change, anticipate trends, and find ways to add value in an increasingly competitive and worldwide market place.

This globalization of business and industry – from the bottom to the top of the supply chain – whether it's financial services, advanced manufacturing, agriculture, construction – requires workers to acquire a core knowledge and skill set that can be applied and quickly upgraded and adapted in a wide and rapidly changing variety of work settings.

For our workforce to succeed in this type of environment, our education pipeline – from K-12 through post secondary – needs to be nimble, it needs to be attuned to regional economic trends, and it needs to value its role in the economic success of our state and our state's citizens.

The notice for this hearing set forth issues which our members often identify as a significant gap in New York's educational framework: workforce preparation and skill development cannot be seen as a place for underachievers, a way to provide a credential for those falling through the gaps.

Career and technical education (CTE) is not a separate path for students not likely to complete a high school diploma. The reality of today's economy is that there is little chance for economic success for any individual who does not possess a bare minimum of skills and education. A high school diploma is a minimum – and career and technical education should be a component of all high school study, if a high school diploma is to have any real currency in the marketplace.

You will hopefully hear from many educational experts today who can better answer the process questions related to CTE programs in various high schools around New York State. These educators are also better informed on the data which might explain any relationship between dropout rates and CTE program enrollments. Even with the more rigorous CTE programs being offered to some high school students, the broader issues remain unaddressed: for New York to have a competitive workforce, for students to possess skills relevant to the workplace upon completion of a high school curriculum – coursework throughout the secondary years needs to be contextualized, it needs to move from academic to applied learning and it needs to better relate what is happening in the classroom to the opportunities those skills and knowledge can translate to in the world of work. Business receives the “end product” – whether it's a student who has dropped out, one who possesses a high school diploma or post-secondary credential. So what doesn't get accomplished in the educational setting often becomes a business problem to address.

Many of the Business Councils' members –such as Kodak, Citibank, IBM, JP Morgan Chase, Wegmans, and Price Chopper – have longstanding civic and corporate ties to their community school districts across the state. Their investment of time and resources should be understood as part of their business strategy: they understand the link between skills and education and what that means to their bottom line and ability to find a talent pipeline.

Our members also understand that education and workforce skill preparation is not an “either/or” proposition:  it is a package deal.

So our challenge as business stakeholders – and your challenge as policy makers – is to identify ways where we can better integrate the learning necessary to help develop these skills for ALL students, not just those in CTE programs, not just those “at risk” of dropping out, not just those who express an interest.

For business we must find ways to better articulate and advocate around the educational skills that students need to be successful workers. Those skills include technical skills – but also strong basic employability skills; reading, writing and communication skills. While some traditional education programs and assessment methods address some of these areas, few provide a comprehensive approach across the skill spectrum.

In the world of education, students, teachers and administrators all understand the concept of the “standard” necessary to achieve the high school diploma or to move to the next grade. Standards are not foreign to the business world either: hundreds of “skill standards” have been developed by industry which can be validated by skill assessments across many different occupational tracks. Some of these national skill standard assessments are used within the CTE programs in New York's schools; but many more models exist than are currently being accessed and integrated throughout the system. It is important to note that these assessments are rigorous, and most important are valid, reliable and legally defensible. These national skill credentials offer the student a powerful tool: something that is nationally recognized, and portable. One who earns the Ford or Toyota automotive technician certification, for example, will possess a credential which is part of the minimum hiring standard for any industry-certified service shop around the country - not just in their neighborhood. That credential offers a currency that currently does not exist with a high school diploma, for which there is no national standard.

SUNY IT in Oneida County has done extensive work around aligning national computer credentials and pathways with industry in their region, all with the goal of providing both the business and the student with a meaningful way of validating their skills.

Their efforts didn't start with the high school student in mind – rather they were looking at adults who had various training, learning and experience but no meaningful way to validate those skills through a credential which could demonstrate to an employer that they possessed a core set of skill proficiency. Their work is no longer limited to adults; the importance of earning industry-based credentials throughout the learning years – whether secondary or post-secondary is also a powerful incentive to students to remain in school. It provides a clear link to them on how what they are learning relates to the world of work.

Syracuse University has done extensive work with the Syracuse City School District around the use of skill assessments to help improve overall student achievement and outcome. Their efforts are not limited to CTE students in part because their research shows that students, who can relate what they are learning in the classroom to a career or learning outcome, become better engaged in their studies. The use of skill assessments has also provided teachers with a roadmap on ways to better align their curriculum with how that learning can be applied to employment in their community.

The State Workforce Investment Board – with leadership and guidance from the executive branch and Commissioner Mills – and a significant commitment from business across New York State – joined with Florida, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington state and Washington, DC – to develop the National Work Readiness Credential. This investment of time and capital was not undertaken lightly – but reflected a commitment from business and the public sector that an entry-level skills credential was needed in the marketplace to provide students with a way to validate entry-level skills and to build respect for the power that a credential can have in the marketplace. Developing skill standards with credentials to validate those skills is not an easy undertaking and they are to be commended for taking on this challenge.

We will not be able to control the pace of change in the global economy or in our own backyards. What we can do is provide our citizens with the tools to be able to compete.

Economic data demonstrates a clear link between future earnings and diploma attainment. On behalf of Business Council members, if I leave you with any lasting thought on how to frame your policy discussions around workforce preparation it is this: this is not an “either or” proposition. It is not a CTE credential or a high school diploma – it is both. It is not a nationally recognized industry skill credential or a high school diploma – it is both. Our significant investment of resources in public education should show a return to the community and to the student, and one very powerful way of doing that is to provide all students with the means through which to earn credentials during their high school years.