Editor’s Note: Justin van Fleet is the executive director of the Global Business Coalition for Education and president of the global children’s charity Theirworld. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
With schooling disrupted around the world due to the pandemic, the pivotal impact a consistent and meaningful education has on our children is now more evident than ever. For many, distance learning is no substitute for in-person education, especially for the youngest children who need to build their social skills. And for children in poverty, going online is impossible with limited connectivity or access to devices, such as laptops and tablets.
The World Bank estimated that unless remedial education provisions are put into place, today’s young learners will suffer from more than $10 trillion in future earnings losses due to school closures. And according to UNICEF, the longer children remain out of school, the less likely they will return, with at least 24 million children projected to stay out permanently. Poverty, the necessity to work, early marriage and pregnancy are among the reasons. It’s clear that the world’s return to economic growth depends on the successful and safe reopening of schools and furthering our reinvestment in education.
Companies around the globe have a pivotal role to play in helping to offset the pandemic’s immediate and long-term impact on children. Doing good for education can translate into doing good for business. In the immediate term, policies to help avoid burnout and productivity loss while retaining talent, such as flexible hours or temporarily redefining responsibilities among team members, can help support employees with young children during this period of hybrid learning. But finding ways to help restore quality education will have the greatest long-term impact on the world’s youth.
Here are some ways companies can support children’s education:
Public education is on the chopping block in the Covid recovery era as tax revenues decrease, impacting local budgets. Given that business leaders often have the ear of elected officials, they should use their leadership to advocate for education. From prioritizing education in stimulus and recovery investments to advocating for new global education funds, like the International Finance Facility for Education, the private sector can be an influential voice in protecting education budgets.
Align community engagement to support equity
Companies can help mitigate the inequitable impacts of Covid, placing equality at the heart of the recovery where it belongs by making philanthropic contributions. They can invest in after-school and catch-up programs for students who have fallen behind, provide take-home meals for children who don’t have enough food and offer Internet vouchers to help learning continue outside of the classroom. Through philanthropy, companies can help create a more equal playing field.
Adopt pro-education policies
Corporate policies can help improve the local education ecosystem during the recovery. Companies should look internally as small policy changes can have a large impact.
Elevating hiring practices for youth with disabilities or ensuring child care services for employees will help promote positive change in education. Starting apprenticeship programs with local community colleges or high schools can also make education more relevant and support pathways to employment.
Share expertise and innovation
Business can flex more than philanthropy to support public education. Companies can help by harnessing their expertise and know-how. For example, the technology industry can find ways to build community partnerships to connect lower-income students to the Internet and provide devices to students at risk of falling through the cracks of distance education. Consulting firms can donate employee time to help school systems address challenges that arise during the recovery. Financial institutions can help instil financial literacy by supporting school programs. And many companies can share business models — from supply chain management to inventory and accounting — to improve school systems’ back-office functions.
Change the skills narrative to support the early years
Even before Covid-19, the Education Commission anticipated that by 2030, about half of the world’s 1.6 billion youth would not have the basic skills to enter the workforce. The problem is particularly acute in places like sub-Saharan Africa, where the figure drops to less than one in five. At the same time, 45% of employers were already having difficulties finding candidates with the right skills. But the reality is that the skills needed for the workforce of the future are much broader than reading and math — and they are developed in the early years. Yet in countries like the United States, about half of three- and four-year olds are not even enrolled in preschool. Business can use this evidence to change the narrative — and advocate for universal preschool education — to improve the longer-term talent pipeline.
The challenge we have today is of course way bigger than what one company alone can achieve. To turn the current crisis into an opportunity, we need businesses large and small to collaborate on creating ecosystems for success and concentrate on concrete actions that have the biggest impact, not just on their bottom line, but on creating future talent and addressing vital social issues.
If we want to build sustainable communities and economies which can survive and prevent future crises, we must close the education gap that is rapidly widening. Education is central to people’s livelihood; it is essential to drive growth and economies and to move nations forward. Education needs to be central in our plans, and the first step is to agree that education is everybody’s business.