U.S. companies are experiencing a very real “skills gap.” More than 90 percent of Business Roundtable CEOs report that “current skills shortages present a problem for their company or industry, and they predict greater demand for more highly educated workers over the next decade.”

Graphic courtesy businessroundtable.org.

To help tackle this problem they are taking the long view on how we can improve this gap for corporations. Chaired by Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, the Business Roundtable’s new report is all about helping those who won’t even have a chance to enter the C-suite for decades.

Why? Because they want to ensure children succeed in the workforce later on. Specifically, the group is trying to give third-graders a leg up on literacy.

The report, Why Reading Matters, points to research that found the economic returns from reading proficiently are higher in the United States than in nearly every other developed country and also plays a key role in the development of so-called “soft skills,” such as critical analysis and effective communications.

“As technology has come to dominate not only our professional lives but also our personal and creative endeavors, reading and reading comprehension have become even more critical to our technological future,” said Mike Gregoire, CEO of CA Technologies. “We have gotten to the point where STEM and the humanities are inextricably linked. Reading provides the tools needed to truly understand STEM subjects, and there can be no STEM-based advances without the creative thinking reading ignites.”

Graphic courtesy businessroundtable.org.

MORE: The Table: Closing the Skills Gap

Unfortunately, only about one in three American students demonstrates reading proficiency on national assessments of educational progress in fourth and eighth grade, according to the report. The numbers are even more troubling for low-income students and students of color with only about one in five black, Hispanic and lower-income students demonstrating reading proficiency by fourth grade.

This lack of proficiency then follows the student into later grades and the negative consequences mount as they grow older.

Graphic courtesy businessroundtable.org.

In order to address this problem, the Business Roundtable is calling on state leaders to consider a six-step policy agenda, beginning with publicly-funded prekindergarten (pre-K) programs which focus on ensuring that children have strong early literacy skills as they enter kindergarten, and systematically builds on that foundation to help all students achieve reading proficiency by the end of third grade.

“Reading proficiently by third grade requires starting before third, second and even first grade,” argues Dr. Jim Goodnight, CEO, SAS. “We must start with high-quality pre-K to lay the foundations for achieving that goal, ensuring a future skilled workforce for our knowledge-driven global economy.”

The report concludes with offering CEOs nine ways they can make a difference in their state to promote reading.

CEOs can make all the difference if they lend their voices to support pre-K expansion, the Business Roundtable argues. In Michigan in 2012, when a group of business leaders advocated to expand the state’s public pre-K program it helped a grassroots movement get over the finish line.