The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics unemployment rates released today mark the 77th consecutive month of job growth in the United States. While the overall trend is in the right direction, the increase is small and uneven — for example, adult men, teenagers, African Americans, and Asians saw little to no change. For our workforce to grow, it is critical to stay focused on people and the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in today’s economy.

Just this week, President Trump held a Business Town Hall with CEOs where he discussed how to better prepare students for the workforce, including expanded opportunities for career and technical education and apprenticeship models.

These types of expanded pathways to college and career readiness are key, but they also must go hand-in-hand with the content and skills students are learning in the classroom.

As a former governor of Delaware and a former businessman, I’ve seen the workforce shift toward a need for employees who can think critically, problem solve, and bring brain power to bear on real problems.

The demands of our workforce make standing by and continuing to build on a commitment to higher academic standards made by 42 states and the District of Columbia absolutely key to continued economic growth and low unemployment in the United States.

According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require post-secondary education and training beyond high school.

If we want to fill these jobs and reduce unemployment, we have to prepare today’s students with the education and skills that will help prepare them for college and career.

And when students can see the connection between school and the colleges and careers they aspire to, they are more likely to stay in school. Delaware adopted higher academic standards in 2010, and thanks to the hard work of educators and students, the statewide graduation rate in 2016 reached 84.66 percent—the highest rate since 2010-11.

By creating stronger pathways between K-12, higher education, and the employer community—like discussed in this week’s Business Town Hall—students are more prepared to gain college-entry credits or earn industry certifications while still in high school. For instance, in Delaware, our Pathways to Prosperity program saw enrollment grow from a few dozen students to more than 5,000 students who are now better prepared for college or career.

More rigorous academic standards can also help students prepare for competitive jobs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields, where unemployment is more than two percentage points below the national average.

Unfortunately, the so-called “skills gap” between what employers need and employees can do is real, and growing—with nearly 95 percent of CEOs reporting that this talent gap, from entry level to highly technical positions, is problematic for their companies. That’s why we need to remain committed to providing our students with the skills and knowledge they’ll need to fill these jobs.

Today, 7 years after many states adopted higher academic standards, we’ve seen the majority of those states remain committed to implementing rigorous, comparable standards that better prepare students to think critically and problem solve.

We’ve also seen these states adopt assessments that are aligned to the new standards—assessments that provide a much clearer picture of where students are doing well and where they need additional support.

Students across the country are now beginning their third year of annual assessments aligned to the new standards, and we’ve seen scores on the rise for the majority of students—even as the nation’s high-school graduation rate reached 83 percent in 2014-15, the fifth straight record-setting year.

From my vantage point, the correlation is clear: More rigorous academic standards that are better aligned to the skills and competencies of today’s workplace—and the workplace of tomorrow—lead to more engaged students better equipped for postsecondary education, to better qualified job applicants, to lower unemployment, and to a stronger economy.

Now isn’t the time to turn back this progress. When states keep academic standards high, they’re helping to put all students on a path to employment. That’s a smart investment for all our futures.

Commentary by Jack Markell, a Democrat who served as the governor of Delaware from 2009 to 2017. He is a former chair of the National Governors Association and was a co-chair of the initiative that established the Common Core State Standards.

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