Education And Workforce Development

by Joseph N. Abraham, M.D.

Currently in some circles there is this “new” idea, that education should serve workforce development. In this approach, the primary role of education is to produce workers for the economy– in essence, employees. Not surprisingly, these arguments generally come from the business community.

Such an approach appears to be insufficient. First of all, if we are engaged in workforce development, then what workers are we developing? For which job shall we train workers? There is a popular slide show claiming that today’s graduate will hold 10 to 14 jobs by age 38. What will those jobs be? And even if we knew what they would be, we couldn’t possibly train for that many jobs. For which of them should we train our workers?

Even if we were to take the unreasonable approach that we are training “workers” who would spend an entire career in one kind of work, technology changes. The abilities required today of the lowest-skilled jobs are far different today than they were 20 years ago. Even janitors need to be able to order supplies on-line, handle new equipment, and understand the proper use and disposal of dangerous chemicals; for jobs more complicated than custodial work, the needed skills expand exponentially. So if by some chance we could successfully train our students for one job that they would keep their entire careers, we will still need to spend large sums of money constantly re-training them. Unless, of course, our workers could train themselves. And that provides our first clue.

Next, we will need to decide whether each student will become management, or labor. Highly skilled jobs require critical thinking skills, and a wide knowledge of many different fields. Less-skilled jobs– even middle management– require a more focused training that concentrates more on attention to details, and frequently moves away from autonomous thinking. At the same time, it is impossible to predict who will be management, or labor. So, train the employee, fail the manager. Train the manager, fail the employee. This is a second consideration.

Next, we need to ask how it is that citizens, with moderate private income, should pay taxes to produce workers for corporations, which have very large budgets? If commerce needs to train workers for the corporation, private individuals should not pay taxes to support this.

And that brings us to a more fundamental question. Businesses frequently clamor for smaller government, and insist that private entities can do almost anything better than public bodies. Why then should government pay for the needs of businesses? If for-profit initiatives are superior to public bureaucracies, then let each business pick up the cost of worker training, and give us the most efficient, economical solution. Otherwise, it appears that business’ interest in education is not truly educational, but purely mercenary: shift the costs to someone else. If businesses can do everything else better than government, why not train their own workers? This insight focuses on the origins of the workforce argument, rather than the conclusions, but it a crucial understanding nevertheless.

Another consideration is whether the concept of job training is consistent with the needs of the democracy. Police states want job training for the populace– and nothing else (and more than a few businesses operate like police states). Whether in the state, the workplace, or in the church, dictatorial leaders want no one of independent mind. Police states hardly want challenges to their competence, much less, probity. Autocrats want quiet, unthinking, but efficient workers, who do, and do not ask. Job training as opposed to citizen training is the final insight, and strongly points to the problem of turning our schools into centers of workforce development.

These ideas are inadequate, because in a free democracy, education should not serve worker training. Here in the USA, one of our favorite saws is that it is possible for any young student to be elected President one day. The problem with this argument, is that EVERY student in the USA becomes President. When we cast our ballots, we are all the Chief Executive of the country; so everyone is President.

There is an irony here. Socrates warned us of the danger when all hands control the ship of state; in fact, it is from Socrates’ warning that we receive the idea that government is a ship. But his fear has been proven wrong: democracy turned out to be the great strength of America. It is when all of us decide together, that we are the strongest.

However, that is accurate only when the population consists of robust, self-reliant, and intelligent thinkers. In the weariest parts of the world, where there is is insufficient education and no tradition of free independence, democracies collapse. Free, democratic governments only survive where the voters think for themselves, and act accordingly.

Seeing these things, we can understand that training our children for jobs is not the answer, not at all. Vocational preparation is insufficient for the democracy. Democracy absolutely must have discerning citizens who have a grasp of multiple complex disciplines. As do our neighborhoods, our churches– and our businesses.

We don’t need to train workers. We need to train citizens. We need citizens who understand history, and science, and economics, and diversity of cultures– particularly as it relates to geopolitics. Currently we are engaged in two wars in the Middle East. Regardless of how each of us may feel about those wars, all parties agree that costly mistakes were made because we did not fully understand the geopolitics of the region. And as the world grows smaller, we are becoming aware of the impossibility of understanding all of it diverse cultures; obviously, we will need to inform ourselves as we go. So we also need citizens, and workers, who continue to learn, and inquire, for their entire lives.

Our world demands citizens who are versed in many disciplines, who can analyze and synthesize, who understand that the sciences, the humanities, business, politics, and the social sciences are all inter-related, and that they all interact to give us the world we live in– the one through which we must navigate our “ship of state”. Of course, a citizen who understands these things will also be a good employee; but not good at one job, and at one trade, but at almost anything we can throw at her, because she will have the understanding and intellectual skills to re-educate herself to adapt to the rapidly changing world around her.

And once we have educated the enlightened citizen-worker, she will also work for equally well-educated citizens, those who are mindful and respectful of the critical skills of their employees and their customers. And these enlightened managers will be able to take the input from all of these diverse viewpoints, and synthesize them to create business models that look less and less like the outmoded aristocratic structures of the past, and more and more like the democratic structures of today, and of the future.

We need so much more than employees. We need members of the democracy, those who can think and learn at a level equal to the demands of the modern world. And we need them in the voting booth, the council meeting, the church, and the civic club– in addition to the workshop. So if we target employees primarily, or even first, then government, schools, and neighborhoods will all fall, and our businesses will fall with them.

But if we train citizens, all will prosper.

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