So what’s the problem? We know that STEM professionals are in the greatest demand and that STEM careers provide the best salaries and brightest futures for our children. That’s not opinion, it’s fact. But we also know that tens of thousands of good STEM jobs go unfilled every year because employers simply can’t find qualified personnel to fill them. This isn’t just an issue that can be fixed with more aggressive candidate screening. The hard truth is that we simply don’t have enough people with the needed skills. In spite of the data – in spite of the demand – our nation continues to suffer from a skills gap that we are failing to address.

But there are signs of hope. In September 2011, the New York City Schools, the New York City College of Technology, The City University of New York and IBM collaborated to open the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) – a grade 9 through 14 integrated program designed to connect education to jobs. P-TECH is educating students in STEM and workplace skills, and will graduate them with both a high school diploma and an associate degree in applied science or computer science – first in line for jobs at IBM. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has committed to creating more of them. 

In praising P-TECH in his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama  who called upon the nation to “give every American student opportunities like this,” and backed up his words with the latest White House budget that includes $300 million to support efforts by high schools, colleges and employers to redesign secondary education to connect directly to jobs. We already are working with public and private sector partners to heed the President’s call. In September 2012, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s leadership, IBM and the Chicago Public Schools opened the Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy – one of five new P-TECH-model schools focused on preparing graduates for middle-class careers in growth industries. And more P-TECH-model schools are planned for Idaho, New York City and New York State – where Governor Andrew Cuomo has pledged to open 10 new schools.

Early results from the first two schools have been tremendously encouraging. In New York City, P-TECH recorded a 96 percent attendance rate among its inaugural class of ninth graders – 97 percent of whom returned for 10th grade, where half of them are taking college courses. In Chicago, the Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy boasts a 97 percent attendance rate, with nearly 100 percent of ninth graders on track for promotion to 10th grade. These statistics are notable because P-TECH and Sarah E. Goode are public schools with no special admissions screening. 

The model is working as volunteer IBM mentors help each student in both schools connect the dots between academics and the workplace. Making and maintaining that connection is especially important for our schools’ open-admission students, many of whom are overcoming challenging personal circumstances en route to becoming the first members of their families to obtain postsecondary degrees and middle-class careers.

At the federal level, there are two concrete actions that could help expand the P-TECH model from a few schools in New York and Chicago into a nationwide phenomenon. Perhaps surprisingly, neither involves spending new money.

First, we should redirect the funding for our current Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs – what we used to refer to as “vocational” training – and focus these monies toward programs through which educators and employers can work together to connect education to jobs. The funding for a new education model that is both academically rigorous and economically relevant already exists through the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. And we are hopeful that legislators will endorse the President’s call to strengthen the connection between education and jobs for all of America’s young people.

Next, we need to create innovative apprenticeships that empower students to test their STEM skills in real STEM-related jobs. A portion of existing Federal Work-Study (FWS) funds can be leveraged for meaningful pre-professional internships that prepare graduates for careers. Also essential are investments in cooperative education programs that forge direct partnerships between students and employers. 

Reshaping our approach to education so that it connects more directly with jobs – along with repurposing existing Perkins Act and Federal Work-Study Program funding to drive economic relevance and career results – will be essential to providing and protecting our children’s futures. The facts are indisputable. The potential is vast. And the time to act is now. 

Stanley S.

Bishop represents New York's First Congressional District and serves on the House Education and Workforce Committee.

Litow is IBM’s vice president of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs and president of the IBM International Foundation. He is also a former deputy chancellor of the New York City Public Schools.