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The job skills gap starts in high school

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Did you see the very scary business headline this past week? No, not the one about Nasdaq's Flash Freeze. And no, not the one about disintegrating emerging markets. Not the one about the Fed and tapering either.

It was this one: "Three-quarters of high school grads are failing".

That's right. According to ACT, one of the big college testing companies, only a quarter of this year's high school grads have the combined reading, math, English and science skills necessary to succeed in college or a career.

That's scary not just from a social perspective, but a business one. It goes directly to the ongoing skills gap debate. Companies say they have jobs but can't find skilled workers, people able to handle math and science, to fill them. If we're falling short right out of high school, it's unlikely that gap will close.

"That's what we wake up to and worry about each day," said Jennifer McNelly, president of The Manufacturing Institute, a research outfit affiliated with the National Association of Manufacturers. "Manufacturers are telling us that the individuals they have walking through the door are not ready for the world of work."

According to a 2011 survey by the institute, 67 percent of manufacturers say they have moderate to severe shortages of qualified workers.

Now there's all sorts of debate surrounding the skills gap. Some argue it's a concept invented by Corporate America to loosen up barriers to using cheap foreign labor. Others argue it's the result of industries unwilling to pay for training programs. Still more say it's the result of inefficiency in public education programs.

Regardless of where the fault lies, there's a general recognition in the business community a problem exists.

"I think one of the biggest issues is the growing gap between the available economic opportunities in this community and the aggregate skills of the workforce," LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner said in a recent CNBC interview. "To close that gap, I think we need to do at least three things. One, improve education, both in terms of primary school reform and vocational training. I think we need immigration reform to make sure it's easier for people with unique skills to be getting jobs in this country. And then, lastly, digital infrastructure."

Workers generally need two areas under their belt to be productive, McNelly suggested. One is the basic 3R fundamentals plus problem solving and communication skills—the kind of stuff you get in school. Then you need industry-specific training.

You can't get to the second level of training without the fundamentals of the first. And the ACT survey seems to suggest there's a big problem with that.

Be afraid.

—By Allen Wastler. Allen Wastler is managing editor of CNBC.com. Follow him on Twitter @AWastler. You can catch his commentary on CNBC Radio. And check out his fiction.

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