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Social-emotional skills necessary in workplace

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Preschool programs provide early math and literacy lessons to prepare students for the serious learning that takes place in kindergarten and beyond. (Courtesy photo)

There is no substitute for integrity in the workplace. Imagine visiting a doctor who wouldn’t make eye contact with you. Or relying on an untrustworthy accountant to do your taxes. Or purchasing a car from a rude salesperson. It wouldn’t happen.

Character counts. That was certainly the case in my previous line of work, as manager at a major Bay Area petroleum refinery. During my career I oversaw operations, engineering, maintenance and construction at multiple refineries across the nation. Working in a refinery, you absolutely rely on your co-workers. Trusting your team is literally a matter of everyone’s safety and essential for efficiency in getting things done.

Teamwork and trust are also fundamental in any organization. I have observed the value of strong teams in my past service as a board member of the East Bay Regional Parks Foundation and in my current role as a county planning commissioner.

According to a recent survey by Zogby Analytics, 60 percent of responding executives reported that finding job candidates with adequate social-emotional skills is more difficult than candidates with the right technical skills. In the same survey, more than 90 percent agreed that a child’s experience in the first five years of life affect the development of their social-emotional skills.

Yet by age 5, too many young children are already on a negative life course that can significantly hinder their later success in the workforce. With one of the highest poverty rates in the nation — one in five children live below the federal poverty level — it should come as no surprise that an estimated 27 percent of children ages 5 and under in California have experienced one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), and 7 percent have experienced two or more, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health. ACEs include exposure to domestic and/or community violence, substance abuse in the home, separation from a parent due to incarceration, divorce, poverty and depression in the home. Research shows people who have experienced multiple ACEs are at higher risk of a variety of negative adult outcomes, including health problems and issues that affect the workforce, such as lower educational attainment, unemployment and lower income.

Fortunately, high-quality early care and education programs go a long way toward ensuring success in school and in life and effectively breaking the cycle of poverty. Evidence-based home visiting programs provide parent education and necessary health and development screenings in the privacy of one’s own home, and have been proven to reduce child abuse and neglect. They also connect families to public resources during the critical early years of a child’s life.

Preschool programs provide early math and literacy lessons to prepare students for the serious learning that takes place in kindergarten and beyond. But they also go a step further and help children acclimate to the routines and rules of the classroom: raising your hand, lining up for snack or recess, listening to teachers — these are all learned behaviors. Exposing children early to societal norms such as these will go a long way toward producing productive members of the workforce who have strong social emotional skills.

I understand the need for fiscal prudence these days. Yet researchers and economists agree that investments in early childhood programs today will pay off tomorrow. In the short-term, early learning program administrators and their staff purchase local goods and services to operate their programs, and teachers and staff usually spend their wages locally too. Economists estimate $2 in new spending is generated for every $1 invested in early care and education programs. Over the long run, there are additional savings resulting from higher graduation rates, increased lifetime earnings in combination with decreased crime and health care costs.

Business leaders support investments in early childhood care and education because they know it will pay off by producing well-balanced, effective employees that they will need to hire in the future.

Rand Swenson is on the Contra Costa County Planning Commission and former manager of the Phillips 66 San Francisco Refinery.

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