Early Learning: Preparing Tomorrow’s Agile Workforce Today

By Dr. Brittany Birken, Florida Children’s Council

In discussions on Florida’s talent pipeline and workforce development, early childhood development is not typically top of mind. Should it be?

Think for a moment about the historical evolution of our economy — agrarian, industrial and technological. The skills and knowledge attached to each vary considerably. With increased rates of advancing technology, business and industry have evolved and will continue to do so at cyber speed (pun intended). As our society continues to change, human capital and specialized knowledge are critical to our future economic viability. The skills needed in today’s workplace are not the skills needed 50 years ago and will not be the skills needed 25 years from now.

Let’s take for example manufacturing. Many years ago excellence in the manufacturing industry required physical strength as well as attention to production and safety procedures, along with the ability to operate, maintain and design mechanical machinery. Today the skills for the manufacturing workforce include mechanical reasoning, spatial visualization, ingenuity and technological expertise.

Even with the incredible data and trend lines that provide projections on future workforce needs, the rapid evolution of technology makes anticipating future workforce needs an imprecise science. What is predictable is the need for highly evolved executive function skills, which are foundational for creativity, persistence, complex problem-solving, communication, collaboration and critical thinking. While executive function is not fully developed until around age 25, the peak period of development is between ages 2 and 6. These foundational skills are essential for innovation, development, creation and, ultimately, success.

Early learning programs have historically been considered workforce supports — custodial care provided to young children to keep them safe and healthy while parents were in the workplace. With growing recognition of the critical importance of brain development in the first years of life, the quality of early learning programs also matters considerably, particularly for children of low-income families. New research by Stanford University documented the achievement gap at 18 months of life. What the researchers found was that toddlers from low-income families are already several months behind children of more affluent families in language development — the strongest predictor of third-grade reading proficiency. Quality early learning programs improve language skills and help reduce the achievement gap to increase kindergarten readiness and early grade success.

These programs are significant to our workforce development efforts considering third grade reading is the strongest predictor of high school graduation. Reading proficiency in third grade is a critical indicator of high school success given educational experiences before third grade focus on learning to read and beyond third grade students are reading to learn. Students not reading on grade level by the end of third grade will be challenged to learn the more complex material in fourth grade and beyond and are significantly less likely to graduate and go on to postsecondary education.

While it has been long accepted that early learning provides critical supports for the current workforce, less emphasis has been placed on providing a strong educational foundation for young children that supports academic achievement and a highly skilled future workforce leading to a more prosperous economy. While we may not know precisely the jobs of the future, we do know it will be incredibly important for our state’s talent pipeline to produce agile thinkers who can respond to new industry demands. To finish strong, we must start early.