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Ginni Rometty and Wes Bush: Addressing the 'skills gap' requires an updated education system

Ginni Rometty and Wes Bush, CEOs of IBM and Northrop Grumman
IBM beat expectations on revenue and earnings for the second quarter, but gross margins were below estimates.

For the first time on record, the number of job openings in the United States is larger than the number of Americans who are unemployed and actively looking for work. This is a good problem to have in today's U.S. economy, but it is a pressing challenge for the future. Companies like ours are creating the type of highly-skilled jobs that our nation needs, but many companies cannot find workers with the skills to fill them.

With a key Senate committee scheduled to consider legislation to reauthorize and modernize the Carl D. Perkins Act, policymakers have an opportunity to address this "skills gap" in a lasting way.

This bill would prioritize existing federal education dollars for career and technical education (CTE) programs that better equip students with in demand skills. It is an opportunity for Congress to support a brighter employment future in this country by providing students with greater access to relevant skills education aligned with 21st century careers.

Our nation's approach to traditional college degrees and credentials remains an important part of the solution. But the current American education system has not accounted for a surging number of modern, middle-class jobs that do not always require a traditional four-year degree.

These aren't blue collar or white collar jobs, they're " new collar " roles that prioritize capabilities over credentials. With nearly 16 million new collar jobs to be added in the U.S. by 2024, we must ensure our students have the skills they need to take on these roles.

Today, too many college graduates and mid-career professionals lack the skills required for open positions. In our role as CEOs, we experience this problem first hand. Together, our companies employ hundreds of thousands of people, but we and many companies like ours find it challenging to fill thousands of jobs across the country.

Many efforts are underway to help bridge this divide, and some of the most effective are innovative new partnerships between government, business and educators.

One example is the Pathways to Technology Early College High School - or P-TECH, a six-year program that IBM helped launch. P-TECH offers students a combined high school and associates degree with concentration in STEM . More than 400 businesses have partnered with P-TECH schools, providing critical mentoring, site visits and paid internships.

The High School Involvement Partnership program, another public-private initiative led by Northrop Grumman , has served more than 7,000 high school juniors and seniors through one-to-one mentoring and exposure to STEM fields and careers.

To secure America's continued position as the global leader in innovation, our next generation of workers must have the skills to succeed. The private sector cannot do this alone. For widespread success, we need a transformative national effort from industry and government.

Reauthorizing and modernizing the Perkins Act on a bipartisan basis is a vital first step towards making career-focused public private partnership programs that help prepare students for the job market a new norm rather than an exception in U.S. education, giving future high school graduates a pathway to economic stability and a strong career.

As the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) prepares to consider Perkins legislation next week, lawmakers should prioritize key areas where the law can be improved to better support the needs of students and employers alike.

This includes better aligning CTE programs to the needs of regional, state and local labor markets. Lawmakers should also increase student participation in work-based learning opportunities while promoting the use of industry-recognized credentials.

Finally, the Senate HELP Committee should support provisions that foster effective and meaningful collaboration between education institutions and employers.

Many of the most essential improvements to the Perkins Act were included in the House version of legislation to reauthorize the law. This bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. We hope that HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) will be able to achieve similar results – advancing a bipartisan bill that makes the necessary updates and can be placed on President Trump's desk as soon as possible.

This is a time for action by leaders in business, education and government, and Congress should seize this opportunity to reauthorize Perkins right now. America's students deserve nothing less.

Ginni Rometty is chairman, president and CEO of IBM Corporation and a member of Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of leading U.S. companies. Wes Bush is chairman and CEO of Northrop Grumman Corporation and chair of the Business Roundtable Education & Workforce Committee.

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