Leaders from across sectors convened in Davos for the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in January to discuss what should top the agenda for the global economy in the year ahead. BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer, who attended the event, pointed out that many view Davos as the ultimate snapshot of the state of the world. And this year’s meeting was no different, as leaders discussed the world’s wicked problems, from climate change to income inequality.

Education was a notable emerging topic under discussion at Davos. Education plays a key role in social mobility, unemployment, and other major challenges. From a business perspective, education, or lack thereof, affects the bottom line, and companies are increasingly paying attention.

According to PwC’s latest annual Global CEO Survey, 63 percent of CEOs reported that a lack of available skills is a major talent challenge at their companies. As Brad Smith of Microsoft described in a 2012 blog, “Just as this [skills-gap] challenge is not unique to Microsoft, it is not unique to the information technology sector. Too few American students—especially students who have historically been underserved and underrepresented—are achieving the levels of education required to secure jobs in innovation-based industries.”

Companies have an incentive to invest in education, especially when it is tied to workforce development and fulfilling the jobs of the future. Intel is a classic example: For years, the company has pioneered in this space through initiatives that target science, technology, engineering, and math education—essential skills for the next generation of employees. More recently, Starbucks introduced its College Achievement Plan, which offers employees the opportunity to finish their bachelor’s degree, whether they aspire to build their career at Starbucks or elsewhere.

Other companies are focusing on technical and skills training, as well as training for credentials. GE Brazil provides local students and trainees with apprenticeships in high-demand areas such as healthcare, partnering with Brazil’s National Service for Industrial Training to help develop the country’s future workforce. And two months ago, Walmart committed US$100 million to help close the skills gap in the United States and increase the economic mobility of entry-level workers in retail and adjacent sectors. Closer to home, BSR is collaborating with Walmart on Women in Factories China, a three-year training program to enhance work and life skills and provide advanced leadership training for promising female candidates. 

Education clearly plays an important role in the long-term strategy of any economy, and companies should seek to understand their specific role in economic growth by investing in education. Here are a few ways to begin this exploration:

  • Define your business case. Whether education serves to develop your local workforce or create new market opportunities and customer bases, define a business case that is tailored to your company. The UN Global Compact created a framework in 2013 that can help companies define the case for greater engagement in education.
  • Engage stakeholders. Engaging with education experts can help you understand how your company can address the education and skills gaps within your organization, among prospective employees, and among the public. BSR has helped companies like Western Union organize summits with education experts to generate ideas about educational products and services, including direct payment of teachers, restricted-use money transfers for school fees, and mobile apps for adult education.
  • Measure your impact. Once you know your business case and have engaged with stakeholders and experts, take steps to understand how your company will demonstrate business and social impact. For instance, the Global Business Coalition for Education produced a joint report in 2014 that can help companies plan and measure their education investments.
  • Don’t forget about technology. Technology has and will continue to influence education in profound ways, whether through the role that digital and online tools will play in “democratizing” education, or the role that “disruptive” technologies like 3-D printing and robotics will have on the jobs of tomorrow. Companies must adapt and look ahead at how these rapid and emerging developments in technology will influence education and the workers of tomorrow.

As we continue to think about how business can build a more inclusive economy, we also must ask how education will play a role in supporting this broader effort. And while the outcomes and impacts from the investments in education may not be immediate or easily quantifiable at first, with a good business case, a clear strategy, and robust metrics in place, companies can help build a more inclusive economy through education, which will benefit us, and, more importantly, our future generations.