Rosalind McLymontThe Conference Board’s 2009 Annual Conference Dinner on May 27 wasn’t just  a gathering of corporate glitterati in the Greek-inspired grandeur of Cipriani Wall Street for a night of fine wine, fine food and back-patting. Chaired by Ronald Williams, chairman and chief executive officer of Aetna Inc. and vice chairman of The Conference Board’s board of trustees, it was also a night to ponder a nettlesome subject: work-force readiness. And, in keeping with a growing concern that the United States is ill-prepared for the 21st century’s increasingly competitive, knowledge-based global economy, it was a night to honor W. James McNerney Jr., The Boeing Co.’s chairman, president and CEO, for that company’s contributions to work-force readiness. “It has become increasingly apparent that our global competitiveness is inextricably linked to the preparedness of our future work force. Recent studies on the academic performance gap between American children and their counterparts in other countries further underscored the issue,” the Conference Board declared in its dinner brochure, poignantly titled “It’s time to build a 21st-century workforce. Business + Alignment = Readiness.”

Boeing argues that most jobs today require employees with a broad combination of technical savvy, creativity, analytic aptitude, an ability to communicate and work with others, a global perspective and the capacity and desire to learn new ways of thinking and doing. It concedes that, like many other companies in technology-based industries worldwide, it faces an impending shortage of these skills, with many seasoned and skilled workers close to retiring and insufficient numbers of capable workers being prepared to replace them, particularly in the United States. Boeing created an education outreach program based on the notion that education should be a continuous cycle of “learning, unlearning and relearning.” It invests in early childhood learning, primary and secondary education, vocational training, higher education, career and work-life development, and teacher training for retirees. For example, it provides scholarships to “deserving, underrepresented and economically challenged students”; helps to strengthen undergraduate curricula in math, science, engineering, business and technology; brings “competitively selected” professors into the company each year for eight-week fellowships; and partners on research and development with key universities in the United States and worldwide.

Boeing’s McNerney and fellow CEOs Murray Martin of Pitney Bowes Inc. and Barry Salzberg of Deloitte L.L.P. shared their views and answered dinner guests’ questions on work-force readiness in the “CEO Dialogue” segment of the dinner. The dialogue was moderated by Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and author of The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need—And What We Can Do About It (Basic Books, 2008), a copy of which was given to each dinner guest.

There are seven survival skills necessary for a 21st century, Wagner and the CEOs concluded: critical thinking and problem solving; collaboration across networks and leading by influence; agility and adaptability; initiative and entrepreneurship; effective oral and written communication; accessing and analyzing information; and curiosity and imagination. It’s time to start building these skills through new approaches to education.

Such was the talk at The Conference Board’s dinner one night in May on Wall Street.

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