More than ever, we compete in a global economy and we need to ensure that the education and skills of our workforce match those of competitive countries.

Wherever you go, the United States is behind. Our engine plant in Hungary has the highest education level of any workforce for General Motors in the world. Second best is Turkey.

One thing you have to say about the Communist period, they didn’t shortchange education. Now, they didn’t have any jobs for people after they finished their education, but they certainly maintained that level of education. So when we see countries like Hungary, the workforce is so highly educated and motivated to win, that they clearly will win.

It’s going to be a tough battle here. We’re not in as good shape as we think we are. The good news is that we’re making progress. This board’s work at setting clear standards and certification requirements has played a major role in that progress.

However, I also urge you to keep in mind that standards themselves must change as technology continues to change. I believe that is one of the problems that this board is faced with when it was looking at the standards that had been established.

When they were established, they were really out of date. So what gets established now has to be based on the fact that this world is changing so fast. The Internet and electronics are moving in a direction that is creating change much faster than anything we’ve ever seen before.

Auto industry

We have one program, “A-YES,” which stands for Automotive Youth Educational Systems. A-YES is playing a critical role in the training of technicians with the high skills required to service today’s automobiles.

We got into this a few years ago when the dealers were complaining that they didn’t have enough people to service the cars, particularly that they didn’t have the skill level, and estimated that there is a shortage of about 15,000 technicians.

When we looked at Europe, we saw a vocational system in place that works very well. We discovered that there was a vocational system in place [in the U.S.], but it didn’t apply to the workplace. There was no school-to-work phenomenon in this country like there was in Europe.

So we set to work to put that together and see if we couldn’t bring the workplace in line with the vocational schools. Both groups agreed to do that, and it’s been quite remarkable.

In order to make it work, of course, we had to have a certain set of standards. We’ve done that through established standards by the National Automotive Technical Education Foundation.

This certification process has raised the benchmark and ensures that the focus of training is in line with the requirements of the real world. And I have to tell you, it is working. We’ve seen some great results. The program is only about four years old, yet we have something like 110 schools and about 900 dealerships in about 20 states.

This year’s graduation group will be about 350. In Oklahoma, they probably have the best system in the nation. It just makes you feel so good because this thing will work. The country has sort of ignored school-to-work programs and there’s a place for them.

Sidebar: What is the National Skill Standards Board?

The National Skill Standards Board (NSSB) is chaired by James R. Houghton, ceo of Corning Inc., and is composed of 28 members representing business, labor, education, government, community, and civil rights organizations. Created by Congress, the board’s charge is to:

  • Identify broad clusters in which skill standards will be developed.

  • Promote the establishment of voluntary partnerships to develop skill standards.

  • Research, coordinate, and disseminate information on the development of skill standards.

  • Endorse skill standards that are created by voluntary partnerships.

  • Develop a national framework to support skill standards.

The national skill standards system is intended to:

1. Promote the growth of high-performance work organizations in the private and public sectors that operate on the basis of productivity, quality, and innovation, and in the private sector, profitability.

2. Raise the standard of living and economic security of American workers by improving access to high-skill, high-wage employment and career opportunities for those currently in, entering, or re-entering the workforce.

3. Encourage the use of world-class academic, occupational, and employability standards to guide continuous education and training for current and future workers.

Among the participants of NSSB are national employer associations that represent 29,000 industry employers, including the National Association of Home Builders, a number of affiliates of the Associated General Contractors of America, the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association. Worker representatives in the partnership include 15 unions that are part of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department.

For more information, contact NSSB at 1441 L Street N.W., Suite 9000, Washington, D.C. 20005-3512; 202-254-8628; 877-843-6772 (toll-free); 202-254-8646 (fax); (website); information@ (e-mail).