Why Businesses Must Address the Dropout Problem

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THE ECONOMY APPEARS TO BE TURNING. Your orders are up. Prospects are looking better. You need to increase capacity. Maybe you should hire. But where can you find qualified people?

Do you have this problem? If not, you may soon. From large corporate HR departments to midsize firms and even small-business owners, employers are having trouble finding skilled workers—even with a glut of people looking for work.

In a National Federation of Independent Business Research Foundation survey in 2011, 61 percent of respondents said the lack of skilled employees was an impediment to growth. In May 2012, the Manpower Group reported in its Talent Shortage Survey that more than one-third of the organizations surveyed could not find the talent they needed, when they needed it or where they needed it. And in November 2012, The Seattle Times reported that Microsoft was offering to pay a bounty to the government in exchange for extra visas in order to import more foreign workers.

There are many reasons for this talent shortage, but chief among them is the high school dropout epidemic. Every year, more than 1 million students nationwide—about nine out of every classroom—do not graduate from high school on time. Washington’s graduation rate is in the bottom half of national averages.

While you may not realize it, today’s dropouts could affect your business in significant ways. Consider the following:
• Dropouts earn 37 percent less than high school graduates and 58 percent less than college graduates; that significantly diminishes the size and/or buying power of your customer base.
• Dropouts cost our nation an average of $290,000 each during their lifetimes for increased health care, welfare and prison costs. These stats mean we’re incurring $2.03 billion in future social costs every school day. (Yes, you read that right, and you’re helping to pay those costs through your taxes.)
• On the flip side, the return on investment of producing a new graduate ranges from 145 percent to 355 percent, depending upon the educational intervention strategy, and creates a public benefit of up to $90 billion for each year that we reduce the number of dropouts nationally by 700,000.

How can business leaders meaningfully address this epidemic? Here are three things you can do that will make a difference for children, support our schools, strengthen our local economy, improve your employee morale and meet your future business goals.

GET INVOLVED. Develop a simple volunteer program, providing employees the opportunity to get involved with organizations that support education and career pathways. Allow employees time off work to volunteer, and provide incentives or recognition to commend them for it. Bank of America encourages employees at all levels to contribute their professional skills to local nonprofits, such as volunteering in classrooms to help students better understand the values of staying in school and managing their money responsibly.

PROVIDE STUDENTS A GLIMPSE INTO YOUR WORLD. Allow high school students to shadow your employees, tour your offices or facilities, or fill a summer internship. This involvement provides inspiration and an understanding of the career paths that may lead them to their dream jobs.

PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR PEOPLE ARE. Give financial support to organizations that align with your company values, products and services, location or industry. You could match your employees’ volunteer hours with dollars given to the organizations they serve. You could give direct financial support via grants or informal giving from you and your employees. Or you could sponsor a fundraising event for a nonprofit so that more of what it raises  goes directly to that specific cause.

If you’d like to plug in to an existing opportunity, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce has a new partnership that promotes volunteer opportunities with four local nonprofits. An education task force co-chaired by Jane Broom from Microsoft and Bob Peters from Bank of America established the partnership to significantly increase the number of business volunteers in King County that directly help students prepare for their future. To get involved, contact Scott Kennedy, the chamber’s policy coordinator, at 206.389.7223 or scottk@seattlechamber.com.

LEO MULLER is executive director of Choices Education Group, which provides workshops to help students develop skills and habits for success in their studies and careers. He can be reached at lmuller@choices.org.

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