Businesses need to nurture their next workforce

ByChrista Coleman (op-ed)

What is the one crucial factor that can make or break a local business community? The skill of the local workforce is that factor. The health of San Diego businesses and communities depends on cultivating a local pool of skilled, well-educated workers, especially younger ones.

A strong workforce increasingly depends on a high percentage of workers having college degrees. According to a recent report out of Rutgers University, only one in six American high school grads has a full-time job. A college degree not only increases a person’s employability, but also his or her lifetime earning potential. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, workers with bachelor’s degrees or higher now earn 81 percent more over the course of their careers than those with only a high school diploma.

The problem is that many young people in America — especially those living in poverty — aren’t earning these valuable degrees. According to 2009 census numbers, only 30 percent of all Americans aged 25 to 29 have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. For students from the lowest-income families, the numbers are even more troubling: Only 8 percent have earned a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s.

At KIPP Adelante Preparatory Academy, a downtown San Diego public charter middle school serving students from the Barrio Logan community, we are beginning to close this opportunity gap. Seventy-six percent of our academy’s !rst class matriculated to college last spring — nearly double the national average for students from low-income families.

But we are not satisfied. We can and must increase the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who go to college and earn degrees. We know that we can set our students up to become highly productive, highly qualified members of the workforce — and we need help from the business community to make that happen.

A Contribution to Success

First, students from low-income families need to know that local business leaders are invested in the students’ success. By establishing mentorship programs and providing release time for employee volunteer days, businesses can inspire their employees to serve as role models for first-generation college students.

Second, we need to make a college education more financially realistic for students from low-income families. Businesses and philanthropists can help by contributing to merit-based scholarship funds for high-need students, and by encouraging low-income families to start saving for college early. According to the Corporation for Enterprise Development, children whose parents open college savings accounts are four times more likely to go to college than those who don’t have such accounts.

Clearing Financial Hurdles

Third, low-income students need access to summer internships and other workplace training opportunities. Many internships are unpaid, which disproportionately affects lower-income students’ chances to participate. Businesses that hire interns can help by tailoring their recruiting to include college students from low-income backgrounds, and by offering stipends for these internships. That way, students cannot only learn the value of their skills and talents, but also begin to understand that their college education is leading toward a career.

Supporting underserved students to reach and complete college is not just a moral imperative; it’s a smart economic move. When students in San Diego get the education they need to be successful and productive employees, everybody in the local business community wins.

Christa Coleman has spent the past eight years advocating for the students of KIPP Adelante Preparatory Academy — first as an English teacher, then, as director of KIPP to College, and currently as the school’s principal.

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