The first presidential debate is upon us. The economy is the No. 1 issue on voters' minds, but moderators and citizens alike should ask candidates to explain the connection between jobs, education and American competitiveness.

President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney should both be asked to address this important question.

We've reported many stories about American businesses that are concerned as to whether the United States has enough qualified workers to stay on the cutting edge. There is good reason to worry: A recent Harvard University study found test scores for high school students in eight regions, including Hong Kong, are improving at twice the rate of our students' scores. Furthermore, the United States still only graduates 73 percent of its high schoolers. That number is the highest since 1973 - an achievement, certainly - but I have yet to meet a small-business owner or parent who considers leaving more than a quarter of our population behind a success or who thinks this persistent failure won't eventually affect American livelihood and, more broadly, U.S. competitiveness.

While our national unemployment rate is 8.1 percent, there are still companies struggling to fill certain jobs. U.S. manufacturers have an especially hard time finding qualified workers. According to the Manufacturing Institute's 2011 Skills Gap Report, 67 percent of respondents reported a moderate to severe shortage of qualified workers. If we don't act soon, the situation could worsen.

Technology is one area where we still lead the world. But, if we look at U.S. math and science scores, that advantage could soon vanish. U.S. students currently rank 23rd in the world in science and 30th in math. We must bring these rankings up or risk losing control of the one sector we still dominate.

As a journalist, reading and writing scores are just as troubling. The United States is tied for 15th internationally in reading and, according to the U.S. Department of Education's latest results, only 27 percent of 12th graders are proficient in writing. While not every student will use advanced calculus after graduation, most fields require workers to communicate effectively.

As the November election gets closer, the economy is at the forefront of the political dialogue. But as important as these current economic discussions are today, we as a nation must look ahead. The future will be shaped by our young people - they are in the midst of building their personal and professional futures. However, while they go about their individual pursuits, there is a collective benefit that the nation will derive from a real commitment to improving the overall quality of education and our competitive standing in an ever-shrinking world. Surely, a robust discussion of these topics is essential when drawing the economic blueprints for the decades ahead.


Steve Capus is president of NBC News. He wrote this for McClatchy-Tribune.

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