WASHINGTON--While business has posited its involvement in education largely on the contention that its needs for a capable workforce are not being met, the corporate community has neglected to communicate specifically what it needs from the schools, business and education leaders agreed at a conference here last week.
“You’re not good reporters,” Sue E. Berryman, director of the Institute of Education and the Economy at Teachers College, Columbia University, chided some of the 350 business leaders at Fortune magazine’s fourth education summit.
At a session called “What Business Wants From Education,” corporate representatives conceded that they had not given the discussion topic enough thought.
“We really have not done a good job articulating our needs,” said/an M. Rolland, president and chief executive officer of Lincoln National Corporation, because "... we really are not sure what our expectations are.”
Business leaders suggested that as the corporate world restructures itself away from assembly-line production to a more complex work environment, employees will still need basic reading and mathematics skills. But more importantly, the executives said, students must gain higher-order skills in such areas as communication, problem solving, and teamwork from their primary and secondary education.
On the other hand, said John V. Roach, chairman and chief executive officer of the Tandy Corporation, a job survey conducted last year by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce suggested that the local schools were offering “a little too much poetry” and essay writing-exercises that educators say help develop higher-order skills. Instead, Mr. Roach suggested, schools should teach such practical skills as writing a memorandum and using a calculator.
“Essay writing encourages students to write everything they know on a subject,” he said. “Business wants people to be able to write just what the other person needs to know.”
Turning the Tables
The apparently contradictory views expressed here reflect the fact that few corporations really have restructured, although they all say they plan to, Ms. Berryman said. Consequently, she said, their present and future needs tend to be at odds.
Her assessment was supported by a recent study that concluded that the pace of job restructuring and technological changes in the workplace had been greatly exaggerated.
“The notion that a runaway pace of technological change is overwhelming workforce adaptability is ... without foundation,” according to the study released last month by the George Washington University Center for Social Policy Studies.
The report, by Sar A. Levitan and Frank Gallo, said more than three-fifths of workers still do not use computers on the job, including one out of three professionals. Yet when business does compile a list of what it wants educators to ensure for their pupils, the authors noted, computer skills typically rank at the top.
Such contradictions have led education leaders to begin pushing business to hurry its own reform, just as corporate executives have been pressuring educators to restructure the schools, said Ira C. Magaziner, an international-business strategist and the president of s.J.s. Inc., a think tank devoted to workforce issues.
Indeed, at the Fortune summit, where the discussion has traditionally centered on the faults of the education system, this year many presenters turned the tables.
“Business says things like, ‘We need workers with better basic skills,’” Mr. Magaziner said at the conference. “Well, that’s just not good enough.”
“Industry has to begin seeing the employee as an investment, not an expense,” argued Thomas Gonzales, president of Front Range Community College in Westminster, Colo. “Look at what you need, go to the schools and see what they’re doing, then talk to us and work with us.”
Mr. Magaziner, who chaired the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, said that, of all the recommendations in the group’s 1990 report, “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages,” the call for business involvement has brought the least response.
For all the public statements about corporate involvement in the schools, Mr. Magaziner added, more than three-fourths of corporate time and philanthropy still goes to higher education.
“Educators have come to the conclusion that they [themselves] are part of the problem,” he said. “Now we have to make business realize the same thing.”
Numerous conference speakers noted a marked change in the tone of the summit, which has seen an increase from fewer than a hundred participants in its first year to last week’s attendance of more than 350.
Business leaders here acknowledged that they should step merely calling attention to the education system’s problems and move instead toward helping with solutions.
“We have great sympathy pains,” said Richard R. Mau, a senior vice president of Rockwell International Corporation. “We’ve been hearing very heavy footsteps in the last 10 years.”
Referring to a time when manufacturers purposely produced products to be used for only a few years, Mr. Mau declared that “the days of planned obsolescence in American industry are over.”
“In fact,” he concluded, if educators and business officials do not work together to solve the problems facing the schools, “the only planned obsolescence left may be ours.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 1991 edition of Education Week as Business Has Failed To Report Needs, Educators Say