Column: Preschool encourages development

Nancy Moody

In recent years, both electric industry and the media have highlighted the need for STEM education and training in the skilled trades. However, preparing students for 21st century jobs begins long before high school– namely, in preschool.

Success in post high school education and eventually in the job market is predicated on the character skills developed in early education. Employers value intellect and technical skills, but these attributes alone do not build the cohesive teams that companies rightly define as necessary to succeed.

Unfortunately, employers nationwide are finding applicants with social-emotional skills in short supply. In a Wall Street Journal survey of 900 business leaders, 89 percent said it’s difficult to find employees who bring these skills to the workplace. A recent Zogby poll of 300 business decision-makers also reported they find it harder to attract workers with the right “character skills” than those with adequate technical abilities.

Equally significant, 88 percent of respondents believe there will be an increasing need for these skills among employees in the future. And almost two-thirds (64 percent) know someone who has lost a promotion or job due more to poor social-emotional skills than to poor technical skills.

There’s no single solution to this problem, which can be impacted by parenting, home environments and experiences that shape the character of our workforce and the values they bring to the job. There is, however, one simple way to begin the development of these skills as a foundation for academic and workforce success: by expanding participation in high quality preschool.

That’s a key message from Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who analyzed decades of research on children who participated in Michigan’s Perry Preschool program, which offered intensive early learning for at-risk kids. He found that improvements in character skills related to motivation and behavior problems explained a large proportion of positive outcomes in adults’ lives, including a higher level of educational attainment, reduced criminal involvement and less risky health behaviors.

This was one of 11 studies cited in a new ReadyNation report that spotlighted additional connections between early childhood care and education programs and character capabilities. Another, which was published in the American Journal of Public Health, examined the character skills of 800 kindergarteners who were followed to the age of 25. It found those with higher character skills were more likely to earn a high school diploma, earn a college degree and have a full-time job.

That’s good news to employers and to parents who are able to enroll kids in high-quality child care and preschool programs. The bad news is that 18 percent of Michigan’s kids are subjected to two or more adverse childhood experiences, such as witnessing domestic abuse, poverty, living with adults who are substance abusers and more, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health. Not surprisingly, research shows these experiences can have a big impact on the development of social-emotional skills and on educational attainment, employment and earnings as well.

For these reasons, I’m one of more than 65 Michigan business leaders who are urging lawmakers to continue their support for the Michigan School Readiness program, which provides high quality early education that reinforces these social-emotional skills for 4-year-olds from disadvantaged families. They should also approve a proposed 2018 budget of $29.4 million for the Child Development and Care program, which provides modest but essential subsidies that enable poor parents to obtain quality child care — which is often vital for enabling those parents to obtain and hold a job.

Dedicating these resources ensures that today’s children are tomorrow’s productive, engaged members of the community. The price of turning away from this commitment is simply too high.

Nancy Moody is vice president of public affairs for DTE Energy.