There is a growing economic crisis in our country that is going largely unnoticed. It threatens our current and future prosperity as individuals and as a nation. Not since the 1930s, just before the Great Depression, have we faced such a daunting challenge: filling good jobs when there are not enough people available to staff them.

There are approximately 7 million American jobs available right now, and that number is expected to double in the next five years. The economic repercussions for the country are significant, jeopardizing more than $2.5 trillion in gross domestic product in the next 10 years. These are staggering numbers that will have a tremendous negative impact on the lives of millions of people.

The skills required for the available jobs are very different today than 50 or 60 years ago, when the country last had unemployment numbers this low. At that time, seven out of 10 jobs required only a 12th grade education. Many of the jobs that are available right now are “middle-skills” jobs—requiring a high school diploma with specialized training and soft skills (e.g., critical thinking, dependability, customer focus, etc.). Unfortunately, the skills our students possess often are not enough to qualify them for these positions.

LifeReady Skills

NSBA and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) gathered leading business organizations to start a conversation about this growing problem. We decided to focus on two questions: What should schools do to address this soft skills gap, and what can we, as leaders of public education and business, do together to help schools and students?

Tom Gentzel and Johnny Taylor smile at the camera

NSBA Executive Director and CEO Thomas J. Gentzel at NSBA’s annual conference in Philadelphia with Society for Human Resource Management Executive Director and CEO Johnny C. Taylor Jr. (Photo credit: Lifetouch)

The Commission to Close the Skills Gap was formed to determine the skills most needed and to develop recommendations to assist high school graduates in developing these skills. In addition to NSBA and SHRM, the commission includes the American Health Information Management Association, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, the Center for Energy Workforce Development, CompTIA, the Manufacturing Institute, the National Restaurant Association, the National Retail Federation, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

The first task for this collaborative effort was to pinpoint the most critical soft skills that prepare students for the world of work and life. We identified six “LifeReady” skills:

  • dependability and reliability;
  • adaptability and trainability;
  • critical thinking;
  • decision-making;
  • customer focus; and
  • teamwork.

In addition, the commission identified opportunities for public schools to engage the business community in a cooperative effort to support students. Among the ideas the commission identified were:

  • working with business advisory councils;
  • conducting annual surveys of local employers to assess how well high school graduates are meeting workforce needs;
  • creating “job ready” high school diplomas; and
  • requiring work-based learning as a condition for graduating high school.

The work of the commission was captured in “Six LifeReady Skills for College, Career and Success in Life: A Report of the Commission to Close the Skills Gap,” released at NSBA’s annual conference in Philadelphia earlier this year.

School District-Business Partnership

Understanding the scope of the burgeoning skills gap issue, the commission served as the foundation for a new coalition co-chaired by NSBA and SHRM called “LifeReady Students.” The coalition, comprised of NSBA, SHRM, and a growing number of business groups on the commission, seeks to raise more awareness about the skills gap issue and provide resources for school boards to help students develop and sharpen the six vital soft skills for success in life. We set a goal: to create 1,000 new partnerships between the business and public education communities by the end of 2020.

We are glad to provide a model of collaboration between the business community and public schools. But we are not attempting something new. Hundreds of local business-education partnerships already are thriving across the country. Our goal is to accelerate and deepen relationships between business and public education everywhere.


One example of a well-planned school district-business partnership is in Louisville, Kentucky. In that state, GE Appliances reshored its operations (moving some jobs back to Louisville), which required the company to hire thousands of workers. However, there was a huge shortage of qualified applicants. The company and school board worked together to overhaul the local schools’ workforce development system, focusing on employability skills. This effort culminated in the “Academies of Louisville” for ninth graders and above. Businesses helped write the curriculum, with GE Appliances focused on writing for the areas of IT, manufacturing, and business and financial services. There are similar success stories across the country, but we need many more. 

Forging partnerships between school districts and businesses requires time, curriculum development, direct communication, work with teachers and students, and money and assets. However, the effort required to support students in this endeavor is well worth the investment. 

Changing the Debate

The effort also requires developing awareness among our communities of the options students have. Counselors, administrators, and teachers need to understand these career opportunities to help students identify the best choices for them. This requires changing the mindset about certain businesses, smashing untrue stereotypes—manufacturing is no longer dangerous and dark, for example. Jobs that do not necessarily require a college degree can be just as lucrative and fulfilling as jobs that do. Students and their parents should learn about these opportunities and visit these businesses to explore potential careers for themselves.

At the end of the day, students must be prepared to make a valuable contribution to our society, our workforce, and our growing economy. Ultimately, career paths go in different directions for all of us. Acquiring technical and soft skills can be a boon for everyone, college graduates and high school graduates alike.

As business and education leaders, we need to act now to seek and establish collaborative partnerships between our schools, businesses, and communities. We have the opportunity and the need; we also have the obligation to do something for future generations.

Johnny C. Taylor Jr. is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Thomas J. Gentzel is executive director and CEO of NSBA.

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