Steffen Palko, a businessman in Fort Worth, Tex., didn't have to look beyond his own dining room table to understand why there's a skills gap in the American work force.
His son, Erich, was about to head off to Texas Tech University in Lubbock, but he was short on writing skills and not very proficient at expressing himself verbally.
"These are things I know you need as a businessman," Palko said. "I think he was comparable to a lot of kids coming out of school."
In response, Palko, an executive vice president of Cross Timbers Oil Co., did more than get active in the PTA. Two years ago, he landed a seat on the board of the Fort Worth Independent School District and launched an education reform program in conjunction with the city's Chamber of Commerce that may turn out to be a model for those elsewhere in the nation.
His program is called C3, which stands for cooperation among corporations, the community and classrooms. The school board voted to cooperate in the effort and consider tailoring curriculum to the findings of the commission.
Right now, 135 businesses are working on the time-consuming task of defining the basic characteristics of 1,000 real-world jobs and 5,000 tasks. Based on that information, the school board will consider necessary changes to its curriculum, facilities, staff training and equipment to see that its students are better prepared to qualify for those jobs. Palko hopes business will participate in rewriting curricula, training teachers, providing scholarships and offering jobs to smooth the way for work-bound students. Businesses also will be asked to raise money, perhaps by floating a "technology bond" to help schools buy new equipment.
"To my knowledge they have gone the furthest of any school district," said Arnold Packer, senior research fellow at the Hudson Institute. "They will pay the price of being a pioneer. Time will tell if they get arrows in their back or rewards."
Palko's idea is part of a growing effort by the federal government, a handful of states, academia and business to do systemic reviews of how well schools are preparing students for work.
Many companies already realize that "basic skills" go far beyond the three Rs and that bandaid approaches do not work. In a recent study by the American Society for Training and Development, several groups of skills, many of them conceptual, were identified as essentials: knowing how to learn; competence in reading, writing and computation; communication; adaptability; personal management; teamwork; and leadership skills.
A study by the American Management Association found that 42 percent of those tested for basic skills in the professional services field were deficient.
The problem is hitting all types of companies.
MCI Communications Corp., for example, screened six applicants for one customer service job. Then it had to teach the new employee how to express himself and perform simple calculations.
Motorola expects each of its workers to be able to participate in problem-solving teams, an ability that many students do not learn in school because such group effort often is regarded as a punishable offense -- cheating.
"We have jobs but young people don't have the skills to fill those jobs. That's where the rubber hits the road," said Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole at a recent briefing with reporters.
In fact, the rubber has hit the road so hard that Dole has convened the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS), the first group to bring together business, labor, education and state officials to define what skills workers will need for the future. Those will be translated into "national competency guidelines" to be used throughout the country to help develop new curricula and training programs for school.
"All of the world of work has been transformed," said Packer, who serves as executive director of SCANS. "But the schools have not changed at all. Well, damn little."
Anyone who thinks Packer's assessment too harsh need only look at the findings of the National Center on Education and the Economy, which visited six countries to look for ways to put American blue-collar workers on a par with their international counterparts.
Crisscrossing Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Singapore and Japan, the team of executives, union leaders, educators and government officials found fundamental differences in the way Americans do work.
"The things we saw in countries doing a good job is they had very high general education standards and virtually everyone had to meet them," said Marc Tucker, president of the center, which will release its research on June 19. At that time, the nonprofit institution will make suggestions on how to raise educational standards in the United States, how to smooth the transition from school to work, how to rescue dropouts and how to improve investment in line workers.
"Our ability to compete is going to depend on this work force," said John H. Zimmerman, MCI's senior vice president.