Education and the Job Market: Resetting Expectations

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For years now, corporations and governments have lamented the lack of qualified, skilled workers seeking employment. Nationally and internationally, pundits and elected officials call for more job training in high schools and universities, with the goal of increasing the number of new graduates that can plug directly into the workforce with ready-made skills.

Seems like they’re getting it wrong.

First, high schools provide essential foundational education across broad subject matter. I don’t see value in reducing current coursework in English, science, mathematics, and the rest to provide serious, focused vocational training.

Nor do I see how high schools can accommodate all trades efficiently. Certainly, we could shunt children to magnet schools focused on specific skills after the middle grades, but wouldn’t such early-stage career decisions limit horizons and perspectives? How can anyone know what he wants to do for a living at age fourteen? Careers today last decades longer than they did in the past.

Undergraduate education should teach young adults how to think, research, assess, debate, and effectively approach problems—further foundational essentials required for effective professionals. (I’ve entered into a more full debate on the value of a liberal-arts education in a previous post.) Certainly, colleges should encourage students to explore career options, but focused training for specific jobs doesn’t make sense in this forum any more than it does in a high-school setting.

The real crux: Trades and knowledge-work professions evolve quickly.

As I know all too well from my CEO role at FrogDog, technology has altered the marketing game astronomically over the past four years. I see no value in reducing general foundational education in high school and the essential professional skills learned in college in favor of intense job training, given that most instilled skills will obsolesce before students can apply them.

Should high schools alter vocational curricula quarterly to change with the rapidly shifting job market? Can we reasonably expect them to do so? How can universities effectively address the issue that practical career skills learned freshman year may not serve a student graduating a few years later?

Maybe both sides should reset expectations.

I suggest returning to a variation on the apprentice system—which still exists in certain trades, including electricians and physicians. Precareer education will teach people how to think and give them solid foundations in soft skills that will help them adapt to ever-changing marketplaces. On the job, people will then learn the skills needed in that moment for their chosen careers.

This means that corporations must expect workers to join with fewer practical, specific job skills—but with solid foundations in math, writing, reading, researching, and problem solving. Companies must then budget time and money to train incoming employees, conceding that the new system means that staff members will take longer to get up to speed in their roles—and that company growth will slow in the process.

We’d all love plug-and-play employees, but people are not machines.

In exchange, employees will need to commit to staying longer in roles than they might otherwise—no more two-years-and-gone job stints—to recompense employers for the extra training and time investments. At present, companies struggle to invest in people when they expect them to leave in a couple years.

The benefit? Employers have reduced staff turnover and trained teams that perform exactly as their companies require—and employees gain stable, long-term careers within organizations and up-to-the-minute, applied, practical job skills.

What do you think?