MADISON – More math? Sure. Science literacy? Of course. Exposure to foreign languages? Yes.

Those skills represent part of what Wisconsin business leaders want to see in graduates of the state’s K-12, technical college and university systems. However, a set of attributes loosely described as “life skills” and the ability to cope and learn may be even more important to the business community.

That theme resonated in two small-group sessions at the recent “Summit on 21st Century Skills” in Madison, a unique forum designed by state education experts to listen – carefully – to the concerns of business leaders.

A summary of the half-day conference is being written, but the ideas and opinions that swirled about in two groups I facilitated appear consistent with initial reports by other groups. In general, business want graduates who know how to communicate, who can solve problems alone and in teams, who embrace innovation, and who will function as contributing citizens in their communities, state, nation and world.

At one level, that seems like a lot to ask of any school. Turning out well-rounded, Jeffersonian citizens for the 21st century isn’t as simple as it seems. Then again, if the schools can’t produce young people who know how to talk, write, think and hold a job, something is seriously wrong.

My groups included a dairy farmer, two people from the building industry, two from the utility industry, a lawyer, a Chamber of Commerce employee, an entrepreneur, a human resources manager and a private foundation staffer. There were several educators and government officials, including state Rep. Brett Davis, a Republican who represents parts of southwest Wisconsin, and Joanna Richard, deputy secretary of the state Department of Workforce Development. Groups were asked to discuss two questions, paraphrased here:

n     If you were to advise an 8th grade student in preparing him or her to work for your company five to 10 years from now, what are the skills, knowledge and abilities you believe would be essential to develop?

n     What are the strategies and actions on which business and education can collaborate to produce and attract more college-educated workers to Wisconsin? 

In answering the first question, participants didn’t dwell on academic standards and study areas – other than to say math, science and language are important. Instead, they focused on what some people might describe as “soft skills” but what others say are essential to long-term success. Leadership, ethics, accountability, personal productivity, people skills, self-direction and a sense of social responsibility ranked high. So did financial literacy – understanding how our economy works – civic literacy, global literacy and learning and thinking skills. 

“These kids are going to spend the rest of their lives solving problems, no matter what jobs they hold,” said one participant. “We can teach them things that are specific to our industry, but they need to know how to think and get along with others.”

The second question revealed some frustration with the status quo. Some business leaders questioned the value of career counseling in the schools, noting that few kids seem exposed to jobs that are actually available in the market. Others questioned incentive systems for educators, explaining it would make sense to place the best teachers in the toughest schools – and pay them what they’re worth. Still others called for stronger school-business partnerships, even citing examples where business involvement had helped to turn around a school.

Almost everyone said they thought Wisconsin is at risk economically because too many children in Milwaukee aren’t graduating from high school – not to mention college or graduate school. They conceded that home factors and poverty contribute, but they also blamed the MilwaukeeSchool District and the community itself. Some even called for state intervention.

“Everyone in Milwaukee allows the leadership in the school district to fail,” said one business executive. “No one else in business can afford to fail that often and still stay in business.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Libby Burmaster organized the forum to launch Wisconsin’s involvement in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a private, non-profit effort aimed aligning the needs of business with the educational system. It’s a welcome process – and one that will require the continued attention of business leaders in Wisconsin.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.