Ky. Voices: To build Ky. economy, invest in our children

Helen Carroll is manager for external affairs at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, a member of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and chair of the United Way of Kentucky board of directors.
Helen Carroll is manager for external affairs at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, a member of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and chair of the United Way of Kentucky board of directors.

Each month's unemployment numbers help us gauge the strength of the state's economy.

Fortunately, many more Kentuckians are working now than last year or during the peak of the recession.

Unfortunately, our jobless rate still hovers around 8 percent, half a point above the national average.

Yet there is also an odd and costly contradiction. In Northern Kentucky, where Toyota is headquartered, a recent survey found nearly 700 manufacturing jobs unfilled due to a lack of qualified workers.

This figure is expected to exceed 6,000 —that's right, 6,000 — in the next 10 years. Lost to our region and our state are high-paying jobs that help workers raise families, create profits for future investments and make our country more competitive.

A key part of responding to this shortage is investing more in our young people, and doing so much earlier and much more intensively. Today's employees must possess far more complex cognitive and social skills than the work force of a generation ago — and their acquisition starts at birth.

That's not happening often enough. Last year the Kentucky Department of Education found that only 28 percent of children are arriving in kindergarten fully prepared. Children who lag behind their peers in number and letter recognition and in crucial character skills like self-discipline, perseverance and cooperation are more likely to struggle throughout their school years and, as a result, be less prepared to compete in the work force.

Toyota recognizes the importance of kindergarten readiness to our future work force and economic competitiveness. That's why we joined the former CEOs of Macy's and Proctor & Gamble, as well as Dave Adkisson, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, and more than 300 business leaders from across the nation, to sign a letter declaring support for increased federal investment in early education. The effort was led by ReadyNation, the early childhood project of America's Promise Alliance.

High-quality early-childhood programs can make a world of difference. Home visiting programs like Kentucky's HANDS engage parents before their children are born, then support the health and development of those young people up to the age of 2. Home visiting has been proven to decrease low birth weight and increase parent engagement in their child's development.

Quality child care is another significant support for low-income working parents, helping to provide the rich experiences a developing brain needs. Similarly, public preschool helps ensure children from low- and moderate-income families come to school prepared to thrive.

At Toyota, we believe strong economic development requires support of the current work force and quality preparation of the next generation's work force. For this reason, we recently announced the creation of the Toyota bornlearning Academy with a $1 million multiyear investment. The Academy is an innovative approach to help equip parents with the knowledge and tools necessary to prepare their children to succeed in kindergarten while also creating positive and long-lasting relationships between families and community schools.

Business leaders across the nation are supporting high-quality early education and development because they know it benefits their businesses and the young people in their communities. Putting more money into evidenced-based programs will help us drive forward on kindergarten readiness.

The return on investment is clear — better prepared youngsters lead to higher success rates in school, which leads to a better equipped, more competitive work force. The result: a stronger, more resilient economy.