Education And Workforce Development

A new concept emerging in many communities is the idea that the primary goal of education is to produce better workers. Our schools should support our economy. As might be expected, the people advocating such an approach tend to be employers. 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 made the poor assumption that we are training our students for just one job, the skill sets necessary for any position will change constantly. This is true for even the least-skilled jobs. Even menial workers will need, more and more, to work with computers, new equipment, and understand the potential liabilities inherent in any work. As the job description enlarges with moving up the organizational lader, the necessary skills accelerate at an ever-increasing rate.

\. So even if there were only one career track for each student, we are committing ourselves to enormous, continuous ongoing training costs. That is, if our students are incapable of training themselves. That is our first insight here. After we consider those problems, we will also have to decide whether each student will become a manager, or an employee? Management necessarily deals with many data from many disciplines, and requires the ability to synthesize the information.

Moving down the corporation ladder, skill sets become narrower, less independent, and more focused on rules and details. Look around any corporation, and it becomes quite clear that there was no way to predict who would become a manger, and who would become an employee. So if we train leaders, followers will be poorly trained; and obviously, the reverse is equally true. This gives us a second insight.

Next, there is a problem of accountability here. Businesses want our schools to train workers. Why should we have to pay for that out of our personal taxes? Corporations have much more money at their disposal than you or I do. Let them pay for their own expenses.

There is a related philosophical problem here. Industry generally insists on a minimalist government, and the freest markets possible. So if industry desires division of business and government, how can we then decide that it is the responsibility of government to underwrite the needs of industry? If business argues that it is more flexible and efficient than government at everything else, then it is disingenuous to now argue that government should train industry's workers.

It would seem to be an attempt to shift the cost to the general population, even though it will be less efficient, simply because business interests will bear a much smaller cost. So worker training seems to be at odds with the key concepts of the free market, particularly efficiency and accountability. That clue points more to the problems with motives rather than goals, but it is an important insight nonetheless. Workforce development is also at odds with the tenets of the democracy.

Consider for a moment that workforce development is what totalitarian regimes target (and we must remember, poorly-run businesses can be eerily similar to totalitarian regimes). The last thing an oppressive organization-- government, corporation, or church-- wants, is thinkers. Highly centralized organizations do not want hard questions asked by their minions, they do not want workers who will question the status quo. All manner of dictators want mindless workers, who will tacitly and faithfully serve the desires of the leadership. The needs of the dictator vs. the needs of the democracy is the last clue, and points up more than anything the problem of equating education to 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. Historically, this is interesting. Socrates (via Plato) cautioned his pupils of the dangers inherent with democracy, and likened it to allowing everyone access to the ship's wheel (this is where we get the concept of the "ship of state").

Socrates was wrong, of course, and his fear is our triumph. It is through collective decision-making that the advanced countries excel. But that is true only if the citizens are a hardy group of equals, of free, self-reliant, thinking citizens. Democracy fails in illiterate, impoverished countries of the world, where it quickly declines into an autocracy. Democracy only flourishes where the citizens are independent-minded. Given these consideration, workforce development is entirely insufficient; employee training hardly prepares one for the rigorous demands of the citizen.

For free nations to thrive, they need-- no, they require-- trenchant, well-rounded citizens. But this equally is true for the town, the temple, and even the trades. We should not be educating a workforce; we should be educating a citizenry.

We should be educating a population who have a grasp of history, economics, the sciences, and particularly, a grasp of the many complex cultures of the world. America is at war in two countries, and though the country is divided on the necessity and management of those wars, it is clear to everyone that grave errors were committed because we did not understand the history and the cultures we were dealing with. Since we cannot possibly prepare our citizens for every eventuality that might arise in our nation's future, we should also educate a population who will continue to educate themselves throughout life. 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 in the ideal economy, she will only hold jobs run by yet other well-rounded citizens, by supervisors who equally understand that all of their workers have eyes, and ears-- and brains-- and who are therefore key assets, and critical decision-makers in the everyday running of the company. As business becomes more complex, and as the workforce in the advanced economies becomes better-educated, new models of management increasingly move decision-making from the centralized, dictatorial autocrat, to the decentralized, autonomous employee. Exactly like the democracy. 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 graduate broadly-educated citizens, all will flourish.

Joseph N. Abraham, MD, is president of, The Non-profit Bookstore listing over 2,000,000 books. He wrote the book Happiness: A Physician Biologist Looks at Life.

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