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HR Leadership Column

Connecting the Dots

Educational achievement in the United States continues to lag behind while, at the same time, debt-ridden federal, state and local governments may have to cut back on funding schools and colleges. HR leaders should be proactively working to prevent problems at their organizations.

Monday, December 27, 2010
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I was recently struck by four separate news stories from around the world during a single week in December. Each story is worrisome in its own right; but when all four are looked at together, a grim picture of the challenges awaiting HR executives in the future emerges.

The first story, published in the New York Times, "Mounting Debts by States Stoke Fears of Crisis" highlighted the fiscal challenges facing states and municipalities around the United States.

It noted that "the finances of some state and local governments are so distressed that some analysts say they are reminded of the run-up to the subprime mortgage meltdown or the debt crisis hitting nations in Europe."

The story described the way some cities and states are resorting to fiscal "sleight of hand" to meet budget challenges, often by shifting costs into the future. In other words, they're kicking the can down the street.

The next story was the announcement that President Obama and the Republicans in Congress had reached an agreement to extend multiple tax cuts for two years, lower payroll taxes and extend unemployment benefits for an additional 13 months. The projected cost to the United States: A mere $900 billion added to the federal debt over the next two years.

Keep in mind, this $900 billion will be added to the existing federal debt of more than $13 trillion. So, not only are states and local governments kicking the can down the street; the federal government is as well.

During the same week the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris released the results of its 2009 Program for International Student Assessment survey of 15-year-olds. The survey results are based on two-hour tests administered to a half-million students from around the world.

The test is designed to measure literacy and knowledge in mathematics and science, and, for the first time, students were tested on their ability to manage digital information.

The results for the United States? Mediocre at best.

Of 64 countries, the United States came in 25th in math, (with scores statistically significantly lower than the OECD average) 17th in science and 14th in reading. Shanghai, China, was first. Simply stated, the U.S. educational system isn't delivering the world-class students it will need to compete in a global economy.

The last story was about students rioting in the UK because Parliament voted to increase university tuition fees to as much as $15,000 in 2012. While that may seem like a bargain price for a student attending a private university in the United States, it represents a three-fold increase for UK students accustomed to receiving a heavily subsidized education.

The increase was the continuation of a move the UK began in the late 1990s to means-test tuition fees and is, by far, the largest increase. The increases are designed to help the government ensure the future viability of the British higher-education system.

So why do I think these stories have significant implications for the profession?

Taken together, these stories paint a troubling picture: U.S. schools aren't graduating students with the education they'll need to compete globally. This will place an even greater burden on institutions of higher education to compensate for primary- and secondary-school deficiencies.

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At the same time, state and federal governments are going broke, and re-examining funding for everything, including higher education. As in the UK, reduced or stagnant funding from the government will lead to higher tuition costs -- and possibly, fewer college graduates.

How will HR executives find the talent they need to drive their organizations as the economy improves? It will be even more difficult and more expensive, and it will require much more technological and global acumen than many HR executives now have.

What should HR leaders be doing now?

* Get involved in the public-policy debates on education in this country. Policymakers listen carefully to the opinions of people who can offer jobs. If you work for a company that's short-sighted, only cares about the next quarter and doesn't care about education, get involved anyway. Do it for your children and grandchildren's sake.

* As qualified talent continues to become scarcer, make sure you have the expertise necessary -- either your own or on staff -- to leverage technology to your best advantage for sourcing talent globally. Social-media tools are in their infancy, but these tools are going to become more critical.

* Be sure that your organization is economically prepared to provide education and training to workers as talent becomes harder to find. Know what's available and what will work for your organization.

* Do what great HR executives do: Help create a workplace that has a sought-after employment brand because the organization is successful, fair and flexible, and fosters innovation. Recruiting is much easier when the most highly skilled workers come to your organization looking to contribute their talents, compared to trying to search them out -- and then convince them to work there.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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