The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Business, schools, and workforce development

I was talking with an educator recently about business’ interest in K-12 education, and he was less than impressed with what he had seen. He said that a common feeling within the education community is that educators care about the whole child, and that business’ interests start and stop with workforce development. That, he said, made educators skeptical about working with businesses or accepting their support.

Is that the case? Do businesses want to turn schools into job training centers, from kindergarten on up? Or is the real picture a bit more complicated?

Speaking just for myself, as a businessperson and an advocate for business’ engagement in education, I believe that schools should prepare children to succeed in the adult world. That includes preparing them to succeed in a vocation of their choosing, to exercise their rights and fulfill their obligations as citizens, and to live independently as aware and capable consumers. In short, to be successful as workers, citizens, and neighbors.

And I would expect that most businesspeople feel the same way – or at least that they would see the purpose of public education as being more than workforce development, whatever their particular beliefs might be as to other objectives.

So why is there such a singular message on workforce preparedness? A few thoughts:

  • Credibility is not universal – Craig Barrett (Intel) has been particularly outspoken on the need for an educated workforce, and people listen to him because of his status as an accomplished businessman and major employer. He may also care greatly about voting and citizenship issues – but if he were to speak out on those instead, would anyone listen to him? It’s doubtful, since he has no credibility or accomplishments in those areas. So one might expect that people like Craig Barrett would limit their efforts to areas where people will take them seriously.
  • Pick Your Battles – Education has many external stakeholders, and each of those stakeholder groups has a different particular interest – some most concerned with politics, some with life skills, etc. Educational outcomes should reflect a composite of those particular interests – should business carry the flag for all of those, or just for those that reflect its most pressing interests? Perhaps the question is not why businesses push for workforce development, but why the other stakeholder groups are failing to push for their interests as forcefully.
  • ROI – Businesses are accountable to their owners, and it’s much easier to justify their investment in workforce issues than it is to explain why they’re investing their resources in outcomes like citizenship and independent living.

So again, I would not assume that businesspeople are only interested in one outcome; it is in their interests professionally to have a self-sufficient and engaged citizenry, and they do realize it. One should also remember that businesspeople are not one-dimensional caricatures: they are mothers and fathers, community members, and citizens who care about their children, their communities, and their country.

But, like the rest of us, they choose their battles: they're realistic about what they can and cannot accomplish, whether they'll be seen as credible in an area, and whether they're working in the best interests of the people paying for their time. So you might expect to continue to see businesspeople focusing on workforce development issues - but it doesn't mean that they don't care about the rest of the student.


  • As long as businesses want workers that think for themselves, are self starters, motivated to learn, lead, good team players, innovative, etc. then business involvement in education is fine. However, it is because of business involvement in education we have the factory style system we do that only generates worker bees. This is not something I want my children a part of and oh, they are not based upon the schools I have them in.

    Our education system is in need of a massive overhaul. To me public education is trying to be everything -- parent, doctor, counselor, etc. to the child. The educator is woefully lacking in the skills to do this as is the state. Public education came about as the industrial tycoon over 100 years ago needed a non-educated work force to work in their factors -- therefore the dumbing down of education of the past 100 plus years.

    Today, we are not a manufacturing society. No, we are morally, fiscally and ethically bankrupt and education of all types as well as business and our corporately controlled government is directly responsible. Becareful what you ask for -- we have seen what business can do to education and our country -- it is anything but good.

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