The future of the economy depends on getting people with the right skills to match the next generation of jobs, says Bradford L. Smith. 

We stand in the midst of a global economic tragedy. Around the world, new job opportunities are being created that offer the promise of prosperity. Yet hundreds of millions of people find themselves locked out of these opportunities because they lack the necessary education and skills.

Unless current trends are reversed, this opportunity gap will deepen, creating even greater income disparities and stifling economic recovery worldwide. To avoid this outcome, it is critical that businesses and governments around the world agree now on a strategy for improving educational opportunities, training, and global mobility for the next generation of workers.

It is estimated that 600 million jobs worldwide will need to be created over the next decade to make up for jobs lost in the recent economic crisis. Many of these new jobs will come from sectors in which advances in science, engineering, and technology continue to drive innovation and growth.

Between 2009 and 2013, the IT industry will help create more than 75,000 new businesses and 5.8 million new jobs worldwide. But, as job growth accelerates in industries requiring high-skilled workers, we are creating a global market for talent that remains largely vacant.

For example, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the US this year will create some 120,000 new jobs requiring at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science. But all of America’s colleges and universities put together will produce only 40,000 qualified graduates.

This gap between supply and demand is not unique to the US. In Brazil, the world’s sixth-largest economy, more than 40% of businesses cannot find qualified staff. Recent reports by McKinsey & Company detail how this skills gap – with a projected deficit of up to 40 million college-educated workers by 2020 – will suppress economic growth worldwide.

As businesses and governments consider how to respond to these changes in the dynamics of the world labor market, nothing less than the future of our youth is at stake. Young people comprise the world’s largest pool of untapped talent; yet, in a world full of opportunities, far too many lack access to the right education and skills training needed to realize their potential.

More than 2.2 billion people today are between the ages of six and 24 – more than ever before – and this cohort is expected to continue growing. But youth unemployment is 12.7% – double the overall rate of 6%. In Europe alone, the youth unemployment rate has reached a staggering 22%, and in some other countries is topping out at 50%; according to some reports, 75 million young people are currently experiencing unemployment, underemployment, or stagnating wages.

It is clear that if change does not happen soon, this opportunity gap will continue to widen, causing both a humanitarian and an economic crisis that will hit citizens, businesses, and governments worldwide.

Redressing the imbalance between the supply of and demand for skilled workers globally requires a unified agenda of the right education, training, and immigration policies. Building a global workforce that can drive economic growth and reduce long-term unemployment can be achieved only by equipping and empowering workers with the right skills.

This will require a substantial investment in education and workforce training, a focus of the most recent McKinsey report detailing the importance of skill development and connecting education to employment. While this investment will pay off in time, countries need to match skilled workers to today’s open jobs in order to preserve their economies’ vitality. That is why educational investments to improve future opportunities must be paired with progressive immigration policies that facilitate inflows of the skilled workers needed to address today’s talent shortages.

These are not just problems for governments to solve. Global corporations play a crucial role not only in creating the jobs that will turn our economies around, but also in creating opportunities for people to become part of that skilled workforce. We believe that by bringing workers, businesses, and governments together with a united approach to change, we can build a healthier world economy and improve the lives of current and future generations. If global leaders can come together to address the challenges and opportunities facing our economies today, we can strengthen our ability to cultivate global, sustainable talent pipelines.

Microsoft has proposed a National Talent Strategy for the US, which could be the foundation for a global discussion. The strategy includes increasing global talent mobility through expanded US visa programs in so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics); broadening access to computer science at the secondary-education level; and increasing STEM teacher training and degree programs to equip future generations to meet the needs of a changing labor market.

There are no doubt other ideas and strategies that can contribute to this important discussion. But making the right decisions requires asking tough questions, seeking collectively to understand which changes are needed, and committing ourselves to achieving them. What role should governments, NGOs, and businesses each play in creating the educational opportunities needed to equip future generations? Are we focusing enough on STEM fields in our education systems, and, if not, how can we strengthen those disciplines? Which immigration policies best facilitate economic growth?

This year’s discussions at the World Economic Forum provide an important opportunity to address these critical issues with global leaders. The time for a global talent strategy– for the benefit of all – is now.

Author: Bradford L. Smith is General Counsel and Executive Vice President of Microsoft.

Published in collaboration with http://www.project-syndicate.org.

Image: Students look over their notes before work readiness training REUTERS/Patrick Fallon