Business leaders call for early childhood education

Published on Thursday, 16 February 2017 18:00 - Written by ROY MAYNARD, rmaynard@tylerpaper.com

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Jobs are going unfilled - and Texans are out of work - because there’s a “skills gap” between job seekers and job qualifications, business leaders said in Tyler.

At a news conference Thursday at the Genesis Group offices, Genesis CEO Phil Burks, Tyler Economic Development Council CEO Tom Mullins and former Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce Chairman Bob Westbrook discussed the gap and said there’s a solution - early childhood education.

“The fastest growing industry segment this decade is oil and gas and those jobs all need post-secondary training,” Burks said. “But we know that 11 percent of all high school students fail to graduate on time. We need to find ways to fix that. That’s the problem in a nutshell. We have a gap, and we need to fix it.”

The group is calling on the Legislature to increase funding - or at least refrain from cutting funds - for early childhood education in public schools.

“There are many ways to tackle a problem, and one of the most effective is early childhood education,” Westbrook explained. “We need to focus on pre-reading, pre-math, learning to count and critical social skills. That old adage that you learn everything you need to know in life when you’re in kindergarten is true. As a business owner, I know these programs produce a stronger and healthier workforce. We either make the investment now or make the investment later.”

Both Burks and Westbrook are part of ReadyNation, a bipartisan group of business leaders focused on finding solutions to some of the most intractable problems facing the nation. ReadyNation has published a report on the skills gap in Texas.

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“If current education and labor market trends continue, Texas will face a serious skills gap,” that report says. “Texas is midway through a decade in which 62 percent of the 4.8 million job openings in the state will require postsecondary education. But only 55 percent of Texans have this level of education, leaving a 7 percent gap. This gap translates into more than 336,000 open positions for which we won’t have qualified applicants, thus leaving business teams disrupted and making Texas less competitive.”

Challenges for creating a viable workforce include high school graduation rates, academic proficiency and early childhood education - which has shown to have an immense impact on later success, the report says.

“High-quality early care and education programs, including preschool and home visiting, can help children prepare for success in school and later life, including the workforce,” the report says. “High-quality programs include a focus on pre-reading, pre-math and social skills, through enjoyable, play-based activities appropriate for young children. Research demonstrates that focusing greater support during this period of children’s development carries an enormous return on investment - while neglecting it incurs heavy costs.”

The group has some recommendations for Texas lawmakers.

“State policymakers should improve the quality of - and children’s access to - early care and education programs,” it says. “If we are serious about securing Texas’ economic future, we must act now to provide our businesses with the highly-skilled workforce needed to innovate and grow in the increasingly global marketplace.”

That was the message of Thursday’s news conference.

“We understand our Legislature will have many tough decisions to make this session, with the (budgetary) shortfall,” Mullins said. “But we hope they prioritize funding programs that are proven to have a financial benefit. We would like to see an increase in funding for evidence-based programs like these, but at a minimum, we should at least maintain current funding levels. We appreciate that Gov. (Greg) Abbott has made this a priority and will be an advocate for early childhood education.”

Twitter: @tmt_roy