Invest in young children for everyone’s benefit

Apr. 06, 2014 @ 10:43 AM

I do not have children. I have lived in Durham for more than two decades and I run a small private equity firm here. I have been married for 10 years. My wife has devoted her professional life to early childhood education, and I have recently taken on the role of vice-chair of the board of directors of Durham’s Partnership for Children, our community’s Smart Start Initiative. So how did a business owner without kids end up being so invested in issues surrounding the education of young children?

This week is national Week of the Young Child, a time for us all to focus our attention on the needs of our community’s young children and their families. Week of the Young Child also provides an opportunity to discuss why I am so deeply involved and how we are all impacted by early childhood issues, whether you realize it yet or not.

When my wife and I married, we did the usual merging of belongings. While combining our bookshelves, we realized that there was some unexpected overlap -- not among books we had read for pleasure, but among those that were informing our professional lives. We did not have the same books, but we did have books written by the same authors. It was at that moment, holding two books written by Howard Gardner for two very different audiences, that I began to realize the connection between early childhood education and the strength and prosperity of our communities. The social and emotional skills taught in quality early childhood programs are the same skills that have come to differentiate successful community and business leaders from their peers.

Today’s reality is that we have a workforce development gap in this country. Despite a stubbornly high unemployment rate, many jobs remain unfilled. Numerous studies have indicated that more than half of the American workforce lacks the skills needed to compete in a global market. A recent survey of 500 senior executives found that deficiencies in “soft” skills related to communication and creativity are twice the problem posed by any lack of technical skills. As you can see, those previously mentioned social and emotional skills promoted through high-quality early childhood programs translate directly into solutions to some of the most challenging economic issues we face. The next time you see children playing well with others, learning to follow rules and listen, and exploring their surroundings, remember that you are actually witnessing the development of critical skills for which all employers look: team building, effective communications, conflict resolution and positive attitudes.

This all sounds good, but what is the financial impact of making investments in early childhood? Nobel-Prize-winning economist James Heckman’s research estimates that every dollar invested in early education produces an annual return of 7-10 percent. Over the course of a child’s life, that’s anywhere from $60 to $300 for every $1 spent in the first five years -- an astounding figure. That return comes in the form of reduced remediation costs in schools, lower crime rates and less reliance on public programs -- all of which provide economic benefit and social stability to communities. However, the benefits do not stop there. Financial investment in our youngest citizens leads directly to higher graduation rates, increased college attendance, higher earnings and better jobs. The bottom line is this: We can either pay now, or pay much more in later years.

It is clear to me that any investment we, as a community, make in early childhood will have a profound impact on all children and families in Durham. To paraphrase others in the early childhood community, we should all dedicate a portion of our time and resources to ensuring the good health, school readiness and general well-being of our children, who cannot vote, lobby or advocate for themselves and are dependent on the adults of today for their well-being.

There are only 2,000 days from the time a baby is born until that child enters kindergarten. That is a small and critical window of opportunity for us to make a lifelong impact. Please join me in being informed, involved and invested in our young children here in Durham.

Daniel Robinson is the managing director of the Atlantic Regional Center for Foreign Investment and vice chair of the board of directors at Durham’s Partnership for Children.