Follow Toyota's investment plan; focus on children strengthens Ky.

Aerial photo of the Toyota plant in Georgetown Ky. Taken Saturday,  August 27th 2011 by Faron Collins.
Aerial photo of the Toyota plant in Georgetown Ky. Taken Saturday, August 27th 2011 by Faron Collins. Lexington Herald-Leader

Toyota certainly understands supply chains. A first-rate vehicle will never come off an assembly line that's fed with substandard components.

No surprise, then, that Toyota appreciates the importance of working with families expecting children or who have children up to age five to give adult caregivers the tools they need to help children learn from the start.

This week the automaker upped a commitment it had previously made to bornlearning Academy, a program that, in its own words, "teaches busy, overwhelmed parents and caregivers how to turn everyday moments into learning opportunities."

Toyota last year committed $500,000 to launch the program, also sponsored by the United Way and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, in 10 Kentucky school districts.

The company now will increase its sponsorship to nearly $1 million by 2016, and the program will expand into 12 additional schools this coming year.

In the six sessions of the academy adults learn the skills they need to stimulate learning in children. This doesn't require expensive toys or even a huge time commitment. The whole idea is to incorporate learning into everyday activities.

These can be as simple as reading with a child a few minutes, talking about patterns and colors while picking out clothes in the morning, calling out the colors of cars that go by or counting fingers and toes.

"You don't have to buy anything, you don't have to stop and think about it, but it's about not letting these opportunities pass you by," one parent explained.

We take nothing away from Toyota in saying there is a degree of self-interest in their sponsorship. It's hard to make cars, or anything else, if you can't find workers up to the job.

In a recent plea for more public funding of early education, Helen Carroll, Toyota Motor Manufacturing's manager for external affairs, pointed to a survey that found 700 manufacturing jobs in Northern Kentucky remained unfilled because employers couldn't find qualified workers.

"Children who lag behind their peers in number and letter recognition and in crucial skills like self-discipline, perserverance and cooperation are more likely to struggle throughout their school years and, as a result, be less prepared to compete in the work force," she wrote.

If those early opportunities are missed, in other words, many others are likely to pass that child by in later life.

Toyota's commitment to this program is a sign that it's playing a long game in Kentucky, anticipating the work force it will need for the next generation.

Other businesses should follow that lead, investing in both their own and Kentucky's future by committing resources to early childhood development.

Private investment will not make up for the tragic public underfunding of early childhood development. Nonetheless, Toyota deserves credit for putting its money where all our interests lie: supplying a better work force to build a better Kentucky.