Big U.S. employers, worried about replacing retiring baby boomers, are wading deeper into education and growing bolder about telling educators how to run their business.
Their concerns are borne out by the math and science test scores of 15-year-old students in the U.S., which continue to lag behind China, Japan, South Korea and Germany, for example.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report in May that said higher education had failed to "tap the potential of digital technology" in ways that would "transform learning, dramatically lower costs or improve overall institutional productivity."
The Chamber report praised Internet educational institutions like Khan Academy, which built its reputation on YouTube.com math lessons.
The National Association of Manufacturers is leading a drive, partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to establish standardized curricula at community colleges across the U.S. with the goal of preparing students to qualify for certification in industrial skills ranging from welding to cutting metal and plastics.
The association isn't pushing for an end to liberal-arts education, but has said bright students should be encouraged to consider alternatives that lead directly to jobs.
"We need to move aggressively to competency-based education" based on mastery of skills at the student's own pace, rather than on an accumulation of credit hours, said Emily DeRocco, president of the Manufacturing Institute, a research arm of the group.
One such employer effort is the National Math and Science Initiative, launched in 2007. The program, with $163 million of funding commitments from companies including Exxon Mobil Corp. as well as foundations and the federal government, trains math and science teachers and gives more high school students a chance to enroll in college-level courses.
Other projects are smaller and more local. The James Dyson Foundation, funded by the founder of the Dyson vacuum-cleaner company, recently announced plans to sponsor after-school engineering clubs at 20 public middle schools in Chicago.
Among other things, students will take apart a Dyson vacuum cleaner and might turn it into some other contraption. "Learning from failure gives you a far deeper learning experience," Mr. Dyson said.
Employers have long scolded schools for their failings. But with the looming retirement of baby boomers, companies are about to lose a large number of experienced hands and, therefore, are growing attuned to education issues. An estimated 2.7 million U.S. manufacturing employees, for example, nearly a quarter of the total, are 55 or older.
The solutions are neither simple nor easy. Jack Jennings, chief executive officer of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C., research organization, said employers were right to be worried the U.S. was falling behind.
But, he noted, U.S. education policy is mostly decided locally, compared to countries that can impose national changes quickly. Employers, he said, needed to be patient with the political process. Nor does the problem lie entirely with educators, he said, arguing that students and their parents should take school more seriously.
"This is not a business where you can go out and tell everybody to sell widgets tomorrow," Mr. Jennings said.
Much of the emphasis is on community colleges and vocational schools because they are affordable and can quickly turn out job candidates. Employers increasingly are asking community colleges to create custom training programs for specific jobs. In Ohio, Lorain County Community College's Nord Advanced Technology Center has provided 41 courses tailored for individual employers in the latest school year, up from 32 a year earlier.
Even as employers clamor for more, states, the main supporters of community colleges, are setting limits. The proposed California budget for the fiscal year beginning in July calls for cutting community college funds by about 5%. The colleges may have to turn away about 140,000 students, said Dan Troy, a vice chancellor of the state's 112 community colleges. The system enrolls more than 2.7 million students.
Despite the budget squeezes, some states promote their willingness to train workers. Since the 1960s, South Carolina has offered customized training at its technical colleges for companies making large investments and creating jobs. That program figured in the decision by BMW AG to begin making cars in South Carolina in the 1990s and to expand production there in recent years, said Kenn Sparks, a spokesman for the German auto maker.
Businesses that get deeply involved in public education sometimes encounter frustrations. The Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council, composed of people from industry, unions and city government, four years ago set up a school called Austin Polytechnical Academy in a poor neighborhood on the city's West Side. One goal was to give high school students skills needed for metalworking and other manufacturing jobs. Dozens of companies have provided internships and money to help the school.
The sponsors have complained about low test scores and breakdowns in communication with Chicago Public Schools, which manages Austin Polytech. "We knew it was going to be tough," said Dan Swinney, chairman of the manufacturing council and a founder of the school.
But cooperation is improving, he said, and some of the students are enhancing their career prospects by earning credentials from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills.
Write to James R. Hagerty at email@example.com