COLUMNIST: Are we passing on the opportunities?

This summer, many business leaders traded their offices for classrooms to mentor high school students at Washington Business Week. For me, it was the first time I was a company adviser since the early 1980s, and boy did I learn a lot.

This summer, many business leaders traded their offices for classrooms to mentor high school students at Washington Business Week. For me, it was the first time I was a company adviser since the early 1980s, and boy did I learn a lot.

There were seven high school juniors and seniors in my group – bright, enthusiastic, inventive and very capable, like the other 200 who came to Gonzaga’s campus.

My only worry at the end of the week was, “Will they have the same opportunities to succeed that we had?”

The Association of Washington Business started Business Week in 1976 to expose teenagers to the business world. It is designed to give them a hands-on opportunity to form their own company, create a product, compete against other groups in developing and marketing it and deal with everyday business problems.

At the end of the week, students meet as company teams with shareholders to explain their rationale and are evaluated by business leaders who hear their pitch. Then, they peddle their new products to would-be buyers in a trade show.

A computerized program, called “Biz Sim,” allows them to run their business for the week in competition with other groups. The computer tells them if they are making or losing money, increasing or decreasing market share and evaluates their stock price and shareholder earnings. They can borrow money, reduce or increase dividends or pay off debt.

When the computer simulation asked if they should provide health care for their employees and families, students overwhelmingly said, “yes.” During our discussion about their choice, the teenagers in my group felt employer-provided health care is a benefit necessary to attract and maintain good people. Even when presented with the costs to provide coverage, they didn’t blink an eye, even though it impacted their bottom line.

When the computer simulation presented them with an environmental dilemma, again the students opted to pay the extra money for a greenbelt.

On business ethics, students had to use their judgment on a product recall. While there were a wide variety of approaches, the groups overwhelmingly chose to honor their warranties, protect health and safety, and honor their relationships with their distributors, retailers and customers.

It was clear by the end of the week that the current crop of high school business leaders is focused, extremely bright and innovative. They will be successful in business and in the communities in which they live and work.

Will they have that opportunity? Or will they be so saddled with debt, because of the current spending binge by the president and Congress, that they will be overwhelmed by taxes and inflation?

Regardless of your position on the trillion-dollar climate change initiative or multi-trillion dollar health care reforms, both of which have stronger controls and roles for government, the fact is we are running up a huge debt that the next generations will have to deal with.

Is that the legacy we want for our children, grandchildren and great- grandchildren? Are we creating a situation where the potential that made America the beacon of innovation and opportunity will be gone when they graduate from college or trade school?

Rather than rushing to pass precedent-setting programs that will increase our taxes and stymie the private sector shouldn’t Congress back off, carefully consider what will and will not work, and what the unintended consequences are?

The answer is overwhelmingly “yes,” because our kids will have to clean up our mess. The young people I saw at Business Week have everything it takes to succeed. But are we, as a country, setting them up for failure?”

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Businesses.

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