An unfortunate irony to emerge from our lackluster economic recovery is that even as millions of Americans remain unemployed or underemployed, too many employers are unable to find qualified candidates for open positions.

Shortcomings in our education and workforce development systems continue to widen the skills gap. Left unchanged, the supply of skilled workers will dwindle — leaving some 5 million jobs vacant by 2018 — and won’t keep pace with the demands of a modern economy or the needs of employers struggling to compete.

The skills gap has been pigeonholed for many years as an education issue and left to policymakers, educators and administrators to fix. But as the top consumer of our education system, the private sector has a huge stake in this challenge and can’t afford to wait for others to find a solution.

And many businesses haven’t. The essence of enterprise is solving problems and fulfilling needs, so it should surprise no one that business leaders are innovating their way out of the problem.

A number of companies and partners have pioneered a whole new approach to sourcing workers by applying the lessons of supply chains — the common-sense practice of planning ahead and establishing processes and relationships with preferred and trusted suppliers to ensure that you have what you need, when you need it. We call this talent pipeline management.

Talent-pipeline management isn’t much different from the state-of-the-art supply chain principles that companies use to source goods, capital or information. It involves demand-driven relationships between end-use customers, in this case employers and their suppliers, education and workforce providers, to create and share value.

Rolls-Royce employed this strategy when it built its massive Crosspointe engine manufacturing complex in Virginia.

Before making the $170 million investment in the first-ever Rolls-Royce facility to be built from the ground up on U.S. soil, the company wanted to be sure that skilled workers would be available and in steady supply.

So it partnered with the local community college system to establish a program tailored to its advanced manufacturing operations. Since forging this innovative partnership, Rolls-Royce has provided input on the course work and curricula, as well as new tools and resources to train students on the same machines that are used at the Crosspointe facility.

These kinds of arrangements add value for everyone involved. The employer wins by having steady access to candidates who are not only qualified, but whose skills have been customized to the demands of the position. The education partner benefits by being able to point to concrete job opportunities for its graduates, thus raising its competitive edge and helping recruit students. And those students ultimately receive an education that comes with real job prospects.

There are pockets of progress and examples of success around the country, primarily led by major employers with the tools, infrastructure and resources to prioritize talent pipeline management.

What lacks, however, is a systemic approach enabling more companies to adopt sophisticated strategies for job training and recruitment.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and USA Funds, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving students’ prospects for success in a modern economy, are embarking on a nationwide effort to advance talent pipeline management-based policies and practices.

To raise the issue in the public debate, we convened a national conference on talent pipeline management in Washington, D.C., in November.

We’ll be setting up regional partnerships over the coming year to get more employers across the country educated, engaged, and equipped to better manage their human capital needs.

Through talent pipeline management, we can achieve truly demand-driven education and workforce systems to help create opportunities for individuals, ensure a steady flow of qualified workers to enable allow businesses to thrive and grow, and keep our nation on the leading edge of global competition.

John R. McKernan Jr., former Maine governor, is president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. William D. Hansen is president and chief executive of USA Funds, a group of business leaders dedicated to preparing America’s college students for jobs in the 21st century economy. This essay was distributed by Tribune News Service.

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