Early Education Keeps The American Dream Alive

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As the president and CEO of a company with nearly 39,000 employees in 42 states, I have a vested interest in workforce development. But my passion for education is deeper and more personal. Why? Because someone—actually, several people and organizations—reached out and helped me with my own education, changing the trajectory of my life.

I grew up on an orange and cattle farm in Florida, the oldest of six children. When I was in the eighth grade, my parents encouraged me to take the entrance exam for a Jesuit high school that cost well beyond their means—and was located 40 miles from where we lived. Not only was I accepted, I earned a scholarship to work off half the tuition by cleaning classrooms and doing other odd jobs around the school. I saved up the rest from my wages from working on my dad’s farm in the summers.

Because I attended that school, my path was forever changed. The question about my future went from, “Are you going to college?” to “Where are you going to college?”

Later, I didn’t get into the Naval Academy on my first try. But the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation thought enough of me to give me a $1,000 scholarship to attend LSU on the condition that I apply again to the Naval Academy the following year. I did and this time I was accepted.

Those opportunities—that access to a really good education—were instrumental in my life. For me, it’s the reason why I spend so much of my attention on education. And as I’ve gotten older—and hopefully wiser—I’ve directed more and more of my attention to the beginning of the workforce development pipeline: early education.

Let me explain why.

The OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, reports that investment in early childhood education in the U.S. is relatively high—fifth among OECD countries—yet enrollment rates for 3- and 4-year-olds continue to be considerably lower than average. Specifically: Only 38 percent of 3-year-olds in the U.S. are enrolled in early education programs. The OECD average is 64 percent. Likewise, only 66 percent of 4-year-olds in the U.S. are enrolled in early education programs. The OECD average is 84 percent.

In fact, compared to most of the world’s leading economies, the U.S. is ranked in the bottom third for enrollment of 3- and 4-year-olds. Translation: The rest of the world is starting to educate its children before the U.S.

And much of the rest of the world is educating its children better than the U.S. Because even though the U.S. is fifth in investment in early childhood education, overall America is tied with Italy in the 28th position for OECD global rankings for overall education quality.

As business leaders, we see the consequences down the line, and that’s a shrinking pool of applicants years before traditional workforce development efforts even begin. If you talk with educators, they will tell you that, by the third grade, the academic path of the student is pretty well defined. If you’re not reading at grade level by third grade, it gets to be really challenging, if not impossible, to catch up. Today, you can go into a fifth-grade classroom and think: “One out of four kids will be employable. We’ll have to pay for the other three.”

Pre-school education is our chance to change the future for those three students. Pre-school can help boost the chances of those three children to succeed because they start to learn earlier.

The most important factor in our ability to build ships for the United States Navy and Coast Guard is the investment we make in the men and women who build these ships. And one of the most important investments our country makes is in the men and women in uniform who voluntarily sail these ships into harm’s way. Investment in education means we have the needed pool of candidates to choose from to do both: build our military ships and sail them. Investment in education helps keep our country economically strong and yes, impacts national security.

For us to keep our economy strong and to remain competitive on this global stage, we must invest in education at all stages of the pipeline—from the very beginning all the way through college. This is why HII invests in early education. This “long game” philosophy extends to most—if not all—of our business decisions.

Two years ago, we launched the HII Scholarship Program. In addition to awarding post-secondary scholarships to children of HII employees, we award scholarships of up to $3,000 toward pre-school readiness education costs. It’s also why we’ve opened Family Health Centers at our two shipbuilding divisions. The centers provide easy and affordable access to health care, but the emphasis is on preventive care. It’s an investment in our current workforce, but also in future generations of shipbuilders.

We are also involved in the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the development of its “Blueprint Virginia 2025,” a plan of action to ensure that we are the best state in the nation for business. Jennifer Boykin, the president of our Newport News Shipbuilding division, is a lead author of the Blueprint, and Bill Ermatinger, our chief human resources officer, chaired the workforce and education team.

The Blueprint includes seven recommendations to strengthen early childhood education. Here are the top three:

  • Improve access to affordable, high-quality early childhood education for Virginia’s working families
  • Encourage employer policies and strategies that support access to high-quality early learning for families
  • Protect the early education workforce by ensuring access to affordable, competency-building credentials and exploring strategies that value and retain this talent pool

Full disclosure: My wife is a pre-school teacher, and both of our daughters have spent time teaching in the classroom, so they see the challenges up close. In fact, our eldest daughter is currently getting her PhD in school psychology, and two years ago she provided us with our first grandchild!

I have to tell you: When I hold my granddaughter and look into her eyes, I become even more determined to help make a difference for others. I want to help keep the American Dream alive for her generation and the ones that come after. I want to do whatever I can do to keep this world safe for her and for future generations.

Yes, it’s personal.

I strongly believe that those of us who have had the chance to be successful … those of us who, at some time in our life, had someone reach out a hand to help us … those of us who have the means … we all share a common responsibility: to lean forward and keep the American Dream alive.

Early education is the foundation of that dream.


Mike Petters is president and CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries, America’s largest military shipbuilding company and a provider of professional services to partners in government and industry.

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