Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children
Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children

In 20 years, children who are currently digging in sandboxes and hanging upside down from the monkey bars will have the chance to apply for high-tech jobs in Massachusetts. Sadly, however, what many of these children may not have in 20 years are the skills to fill the state’s future jobs.

It’s already a “war for us in terms of recruiting,” Tom Leighton, CEO of Akamai Technologies, said recently of finding skilled workers at this year’s Early Childhood Summit.

This skills gap is growing now, choking off the pipeline of future workers, and threatening the state’s economic well-being. It’s a problem that makes a powerful case for improving preschool programs and K-12 education across the state.

A new report — “Closing the Massachusetts Skills Gap: Recommendations and Action Steps” — released by the Commonwealth Corporation provides demographic details, noting that, “Although the Commonwealth’s workforce is the best-educated of all the states, … a very high concentration of our most educated workers are 45 years or older.”

“Our younger workforce is neither large enough, nor well educated enough, to replace those who will soon retire, and young workers between the ages of 16 and 24 are disproportionately unemployed,” the report explains. So these young people are missing the chance to gain the habits and training that employment provides and that 21st century workers need.

Boston/MetroNorth is an exception, the report says, because the area has a large volume of younger workers, many of whom are highly educated.  However other Massachusetts cities also need rich pools of highly skilled workers who can provide for their own families and help keep the economy humming.

Currently the workforce in Massachusetts is the twelfth-oldest in the country, but outside Greater Boston, it is fourth-oldest, behind only Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, noted Yolanda Kodrzycki, Director of the New England Public Policy Center (NEPPC) at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, at the report release event.

State demographics may also feed the skills gap.

– From 2000 to 2010 the 45 and older population has grown by roughly 18 percent.

– During the same time period, the population of children age five and younger fell by 7.9 percent.

– The 18 and younger cohort fell by 5.4 percent.

This suggests that the burden of sustaining the state’s future prosperity could rest on fewer shoulders. We wrote about some of these changes here.

Fortunately actions are being taken, and there’s more that can be done. The report calls for strengthening adult education and making it easier for current workers to earn college degrees in part-time programs.

Massachusetts should also seize the chance to get an early start on closing the skills gap by supporting the growth, development and education of its young children.

It is never too early in a child’s life to start promoting achievement.  As research from Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child points out, “children who live in families with lower income and less parent education begin to score lower on standardized developmental tests as early as 18 months.” Closing this skills gap while children are young means working with pregnant mothers and newborns.

The achievement gap is well documented at the third grade level. In Massachusetts, 39% of third graders, including 60% of children from low-income families, score below proficient in reading. Research indicates that 74 percent of these children will continue to struggle with reading throughout school, These early gaps place these children at greater risk of growing up to become the state’s less qualified workers.

Similar facts are emerging around the country. In Illinois, the data shows that, “by 2022, most high-growth, high-wage jobs in Sangamon County will require a two-year degree or higher.” The bad news is that currently, “six in 10 Sangamon County residents don’t have the education level necessary to compete for these jobs.”

Here in Massachusetts, the evidence is increasingly clear. To keep its economy fit for generations to come, the commonwealth needs to invest in a pipeline that carries babies through stimulating, high-quality, language-rich preschool settings, on through grade school, high school and college and into careers that spread prosperity across the state.