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CEOs: The education system needs to change how it prepares our workforce

Yahoo Finance’s editor-in-chief Andy Serwer hosts a panel with top U.S. CEOs at the Milken Institute Global Conference on May 1.

CEOs from some of the largest companies think the education system needs to change in order to prepare people adequately for work.

Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer moderated a panel at the Milken Institute Global Conference that included John Chambers, Executive Chairman of Cisco; Denise Morrison, President and CEO of Campbell Soup; Tim Sloan, CEO and President of Wells Fargo; Mark Weinberger, Global Chairman and CEO of EY; and Devin Wenig, President and CEO of eBay.

“I think most of this on this panel would say even 80 to 90% of today’s college graduates aren’t trained in teamwork, collaboration, technology, and the skills we need,” Cisco (CSCO) executive chairman John Chambers said, noting that most of the kids entering Kindergarten today will take jobs that don’t even exist.

“Yet our education system is moving in an old-world fashion. And this is what is different when I said what has changed versus two decades ago — it’s the speed of change. And so we have to go with not only a national agenda in terms of digitization, a startup mentality because that’s where most of the jobs will be created. We have to have the courage to re-do education and there is no entitlement. I think the U.S. will lead in this, but we’ve let a lot of people get out in front of us,” Chambers said.

Devin Wenig, the CEO of eBay, agreed with Cisco’s Chambers, noting that it’s an “immense missed opportunity” that the current debate around immigration, particularly in regards to H1-B visas, isn’t focusing on computer science training in school.

“Why don’t we have mandatory K-12 computer science education for every student in the United States?” Wenig asked.

“Because John [Chambers] and I don’t wake up every morning saying,’We want to hire a foreign worker.’ We wake up in the morning and say, ‘I need someone who can program a mobile application. I need somebody that understands advanced data skills.’ And we get those jobs wherever we can get them.”

He added that there are pockets in the economy where companies simply can’t hire people right now.

“And those aren’t all highly skilled computer science jobs,” Wenig said. “When I say mandatory technology or STEM education, I don’t think the world is going to be all computer engineering and computer science. But that’s beside the point. Having that foundational education allows and opens up an entire side of the economy not open today to jobs that are likely in the crosshairs of these technology platforms.”

Wells Fargo (WFC) CEO Tim Sloan added that the education system right now is letting down the diverse citizens the most.

“And we’ve got to change that,” Sloan said. “I think it should be like a moonshot. And we should take it much more seriously. Any of the skills, whether it’s technology, that we can provide to everyone of the kids that goes to school in this country so everybody’s got the opportunity for the same education is going to benefit all of us because those are the types of team members and employees we’re going to be looking for.”

EY’s CEO Mark Weinberg said that the workforce is going to have to continually learn. He noted that EY spends 12.5 million hours and $550 million on training recent graduates.

“You’re going to have to continually learn. John’s point earlier — the average life of an S&P 500 companies is 16 years. The things you learn today technically will probably be obsolete from now,” Weinberg said, later adding “Things are changing so rapidly this need to constantly learn has got to be built into your system.”

He echoed the importance of diversity, pointing out that 157 of the Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in emerging markets. He added that ten years ago, that number was 56. In another ten years, half of those Fortune 500 companies will be ones “you’ve never heard of.”

“You don’t look to work for a company because it may not be there tomorrow. You’ve got to look at your tasks, what your work is going to be, and continue to evolve it.”

Campbell Soup (CPB) CEO Denise Morrison doesn’t think it should end with just technology training.

“I do think we need to, in the context of re-skilling the workforce, give them life skills so they can lead happier, healthier lives,” Morrison said.