Why it’s critical that we start investing in our 3-year-olds

If you ask 100 business owners what their greatest concern is, I am willing to bet that at least 75 of them will identify “workforce” as worry No. 1. A major retirement bubble is coming in the current workforce, and there is uncertainty about who comes next when the Baby Boomers clock out for the final time.

Akron-based ConxusNEO is working closely with companies to connect them to a ready pool of talent. Stark State College offers many programs that help companies to better control their near-term workforce destiny. In short, business owners, you are not alone in tackling the workforce needs you will face in the next five to 10 years.

But if we focus exclusively on near-term fixes, we risk overlooking what is arguably the single most important lever we can pull. I’m talking about the “long game” of workforce development, the critically important investments we should make in our 3-year-olds.

Communities all over the nation and the world are figuring this out, and if we are not one of them, we will find ourselves at a huge disadvantage in the coming decades.

Early education is critical
According to Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman, the ROI on early childhood investment runs between 7 and 10 percent per annum. And the beneficial impact of early childhood investment is twofold: it increases productivity and it decreases inequality.

In other words, a high-quality early childhood yields the high-performing citizens — workers, entrepreneurs, clients, customers — of the future.

What makes for a high-quality early childhood? At a minimum, we need strong, plentiful early education options and we need environments that support healthy child development.

With regard to early education, the Ohio Business Roundtable called for statewide action and focus on school readiness for Ohio’s children in its report “The Talent Challenge: Ensuring Kindergarten Readiness by 2020.” Some of our neighbors have embraced this as a social imperative and are voicing their commitment through policy.

Early childhood education measures appeared on the ballot in November in Cincinnati and Dayton, where leaders are putting their money where their mouth is. Business owners in our market who will benefit from early childhood education (and who will suffer from the lack of it) should watch and learn as the policy story unfolds.

With regard to healthy environments, science has verified the importance of safe surroundings, with plenty of language-rich interaction with loving adults.

Sadly, we now know that when these conditions are missing — when a child grows up amid major stressors like separation from a parent, extreme poverty or a combative household — “fight or flight” hormones are produced, ultimately changing the architecture of the child’s brain. The impact of such changes can last a lifetime, greatly impairing a child’s ability to succeed in school and other social settings, and to be prepared for a fulfilling life.

Investing in the success of our youngest citizens is a sure bet for forward-looking businesses. It is the very definition of “smart business.”

Christine Amer Mayer is president of the GAR Foundation