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Why Business Should Support Education

by Kerry Killinger, Washington Mutual

I plan to discuss two things: why businesses should build bridges to students and educators and how mathematics and computer skills prepare today's students for a full range of interesting careers, including the one that I've chosen--banking. These skills are not only vital to the economic growth in this region, but to the nation as well. But before I address mathematics, I'd like to share some of my thoughts about what business can--and should--do to help improve our educational system.

Over the years, the critical role education plays in our economic success has become more and more apparent to me. Good, strong school systems encourage people to settle in our region because industries are more apt to locate in areas that are attractive to potential employees. Also, a well-educated population tends to spark community activism and involvement. Good schools cause our neighborhoods to become more vibrant, and our citizens to become more active. Moreover, good schools ultimately cause wages, personal income, and the economy to grow.

For these reasons, it' s important that business people recognize the importance of our educational system and work with educators to seek ways to improve it. This is the only way that economic development can continue.

Economic Development

What are some of the characteristics that encourage economic development? Well, we know the ingredients must include a business-friendly environment, favorable interest rates and available credit, a growing population, skilled and educated workers, affordable housing, strong neighborhoods, and, of course, good schools.

Now, my perspectives are those of chairman of the state's largest financial service organization; parent and member of a family of educators; a concerned citizen; chair of the Education Committee of the Washington Roundtable, a group of CEO's of Washington's major businesses; and chair of the Alliance for Education here in Seattle. But I'm not an educator. So I am not going to offer suggestions as to how to teach. Professional educators know far better than I how to do this. However, in my opinion as a business person, we need to find more resources so we can do a better job of preparing our young people to succeed in the twenty-first century.

Where are we today? On the surface it may not look too bad. Most kids (over 85 percent) are graduating and the top 10-15 percent of the kids are generally prepared to go on to college and will get pretty good jobs. My concern is primarily with what's happening to the majority of graduates--those we are employing every day. Business generally finds that many of today's graduates lack adequate skills. They often have difficulty in reading, writing and communicating; they are frequently unprepared to work in teams, think critically or solve problems; they may have poor work habits; and they may not be computer literate.

We need graduates who possess better skills or businesses will be forced to do extensive retraining. Otherwise, these folks will simply gravitate to low-paying jobs. And that would be unfortunate.

Multiple Causes

The causes of these deficiencies are numerous, but some appear more central than others. Many parents have not been as supportive and involved in educating their children as they might. The breakdown of families has certainly impacted education. Many parents mistakenly view education as the responsibility of the schools, rather than as a joint responsibility. Moreover, some students have low expectations of themselves: they may just be getting by, rather than achieving their full potential.

And as many teachers can attest, teaching professionals are often saddled with regulatory and legal constraints, or just simply bureaucratic issues, that make it more challenging to educate children today. From a sheer budgetary standpoint, voters have been reluctant to spend money on education. We simply must have adequate resources so we can increase the pay of teachers to more acceptable levels, and we need funding to have the quality facilities and technologies to adequately educate our young people.

Technical Skills for Today's Jobs

Henry Ford once bragged that a new hire needed only ten minutes of training to work in his factory. But as we know, those days are long gone. Employers like Washington Mutual are now searching for skilled people who can adapt as work grows more complicated. In virtually all of today's jobs, we are asked to keep pace with new technologies and demonstrate skills in language, communication, mathematics and science.

The general office worker today must be computer literate and must know how to access and use appropriate technology. For instance, at Washington Mutual--and throughout the service sector-- the emphasis is on communication abilities, computer skills, and problem solving. Even the CEO communicates through E-mail. I have a laptop, and on planes am often seen doing spreadsheets in Excel, completing presentations in PowerPoint, and typing short memos in Word. For obvious reasons, strong mathematics skills are important for all our employees--from tellers to the CEO.

Mathematics and computer skills are used in virtually every area of our organization--to develop complex models which help us make decisions about potential acquisitions, to calculate how efficient our organization is operating, or simply to make sure the ledgers in our branches balance at the end of each business day. Even though the mathematics applications might be different at non-banking organizations, the emphasis placed on mathematics skills is no less important. And I am not just talking about large businesses.

In a growing number of segments of the economy, mathematics and computer skills are now essential--even in fields traditionally thought of as non-technological. The twenty-first century will be here in just five years, and analytical skills gained in mathematics and computer classes will be even more valuable as the world continues to embrace technology. For example:

If technology has this many practical applications today, imagine how much we will depend on it in the year 2000, and beyond. I believe workers educated in mathematical theory and analysis are--and will continue to be--vital to our ability to use modern technologies. Failure to take full advantage of technological advances will slow the engine of our economy, something this region--and this nation--can ill afford.

The Role of Business in Education

If we are to ensure economic vitality, we must all work together to produce the best-educated citizens. Educators play the key role. but parents and children also have important responsibilities. And businesses must do their part:

Over the years, the critical role education plays in our economic success has become more and more apparent to me. So, the message I want to leave you with is:
Finally, I want to share some statistics that show why the business/education partnership is so important in the success of our children:

Those statistics clearly indicate the advantages of possessing the skills necessary for today's business economy.

I'm sure you know that Plato considered mathematics to be the highest form of thought the human mind was capable of. In fact, over the entrance to the Academy that he founded were words inscribed: "Let no one ignorant of mathematics enter here." I doubt that businesses will ever go that far in their hiring practices! But I encourage you to continue your efforts to prepare the employees of tomorrow for the challenges they face, and to urge the business community to partner with you in doing so.

Kerry Killinger is Chairman of Washington Mutual and Chair of the Alliance for Education in Seattle. This article is adapted from an address given in October 1995 at the 34th Northwest Mathematics Conference.

To add your voice to this discussion, e-mail comments, letters, and op-ed articles to: extend@stolaf.edu or click here if your Web browser is set up for e-mail.

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Last Update: 03/21/96