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posted: 6/5/2017 1:00 AM

Pre-K effort that advances '21st Century skills'

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  • Joseph Henning

    Joseph Henning

By Joseph Henning
Guest columnist

They're known by many names: Soft skills, character skills, employability skills, social-emotional skills. I prefer "21st Century skills," because they're as current and meaningful to workforce success as the so-called hard skills.

Initiative and creativity, flexibility and perseverance, collaboration and good communications -- whatever you call them, they're tough to measure but impossible to do without. And nearly every manager seems to have a story to demonstrate.

An IT worker with the sharpest computer skills still can be a major detriment to his office if he can't work well in teams and manage his frustration with colleagues. Voices are raised, meetings are called, warnings are issued -- and too often, the cycle repeats itself, burning-up time and money until the employee exits, one way or another. Then come the costs of turnover, from lost productivity to recruiting and any necessary training.

In a new, national poll of 300 executives, conducted for the ReadyNation business leader network, almost two-thirds reported knowing someone who's lost a promotion -- or a job -- due more to poor social-emotional skills than technical capabilities.

Furthermore, more than three out of five reported bigger challenges finding workers with adequate social-emotional skills than with good technical expertise. Ninety percent of business leaders said it's harder to develop those 21st century skills among adults entering the workforce than among the young. Nearly as high a percentage indicated support for doing just that: focusing on children -- our future workforce -- through greater public investments in early learning supports.

This subject is as important in Illinois as anywhere else in the country. Our state ranks 11th nationally in the number of youngsters under age 5 who've encountered two or more Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. These range from poverty to parental divorce to parental addiction problems -- circumstances that, individually or collectively, can sadly stunt a youngster's learning and development in long-lasting ways.

We can help to rein-in the effects of such experiences, setting children on a course toward success in school and careers, through better investments in high-quality preschool and similar supports. Research has demonstrated that participation in high-quality preK not only helps children with such basics as early math and literacy, it can curb problematic behavior and improve kids' self-control. And one longitudinal study of kindergarteners showed that, for every one-point increase in "character skills" scores, a child was 54 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 46 percent more likely to have a full-time job at age 25.

These are reasons I'm proud of our preK efforts in Aurora -- one of nearly 20 Illinois communities that are combining state and federal preschool resources in a new way, extending Illinois' typically half-day preK program into a full day of developmental services for thousands of the most at-risk 4-year-olds statewide. This initiative already has opened 170 such classrooms in the past couple of years -- but it requires further state investment to continue.

Similarly, our state should bolster child care and birth-to-3 efforts that are vital components of the early learning system. Examples include the home-visiting services that provide "coaching" to new parents of at-risk infants and toddlers. Dozens of those programs have gone without state funding since last July, and many are slashing services or closing entirely.

Stabilizing such programs ultimately means stabilizing our economy by helping to shape the skills -- technical and otherwise -- that will form the bedrock of our 21st century workforce.

Joseph Henning is president and CEO of the Aurora Regional Chamber of Commerce.

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