Having a generalized set of skills can be an advantage if you’re an entrepreneur, a free agent, or someone who has already become fully immersed in the new economy of the 21st century. While colleges are abandoning liberal arts majors in droves in favor of specialization, the inherent value of what higher education offers is also coming under increased scrutiny by some.
What are these “general” skills that I speak of? Is there a core toolkit of skills that someone looking to make it as a free agent should have? What are the skills that I’ve been able to cobble together and master, or at least become proficient at many over the past 10 years?
The past decade has been a unique period of personal reinvention. I essentially created my own personal curriculum and a learning environment that is very much aligned with all things DIY. What continues to amaze me is how prescient this approach was when I embarked on it back in 2002, while working at a dead-end corporate, cubicle job. I also know that a self-directed approach like mine won’t work for everyone.
Considering my experiences and journey, however, makes me acutely aware how beholden we are to the old ways, a holdover from a former time when good jobs, paying living wages and providing pensions, were abundant. I would argue that many of these former ways are an albatross and a hindrance to success. The ways of the free agent and the economic realities of the 21st century call us to be nimble and able to turn on a dime. Tragically, many are like the frog in the pot, and don’t realize the gravity of holding onto this outdated workforce approach.
American education, especially the current higher ed model, has undergone what I consider an ossification. The accepted narrative continues to posit the value of a four-year education at a bricks and mortar institution, often costing upwards of $50,000/year at elite schools. At the same time, data demonstrates that this perceived value be called into question. Others are making a strong case for an alternative approach to the traditional four-year program.
The economic malaise of the Great Recession, which began in 2007, has been leveraged by the education-industrial complex crowd to move in a much more specialized direction with majors considered part of what were liberal arts courses being slashed, and shifting to a more specialized approach. In my opinion, this is not the approach higher ed should be taking.
If college exists to prepare students for a job—which seems to be the accepted wisdom of a college education today—then on the surface, this approach makes sense. More college equals a better job, and the more it costs coming with the belief that it will deliver a job that pays better than others. That’s not the case at all, however. If we knew exactly what the jobs picture was going to look like five years, 10 years, or 20 years from now, then I’d be willing to cede credibility, at least some, to that argument. However, we don’t know with any certainty and economic forecasting has become much more art than science over the past 20 years. Compounding this lack of certainty is the escalation of college costs. Students from middle-class homes whose parents can’t write a $50,000 check each year are graduating with a four-year degree and are leaving school with a six-figure debt load. It’s also becoming clear from jobs data that more and college grads are landing in part-time jobs. Debt and lack of income are certain deal breakers for anyone hoping to become a member of the American middle-class.
What if we prepared our high school students with basic skills as a foundation, and then offered more affordable training beyond the K-12 system when we knew what jobs were available? Having a workforce prepared for the jobs that are in need of being filled, particularly jobs that offer access to a middle-class standard of living benefits all Americans, offering the chance for better outcomes than our current way of doing things.
Given that the American economy has become a skills-intensive one, with the need for a basic core set of skills and then, the position being hired for dictating the need for specialized training, why commit to four-years of college if a two year core curriculum will prepare you just as well? Someone benefits from you signing up for four years, and we’re increasingly seeing that it’s not the student.
Given that jobs are requiring greater sophistication than in the past, along with a large subsection of America’s workforce mired in what I call the low wage/low skill “ghetto,” then it’s not surprising to me that the discussion continues to resonate with the topic of there being a “skills gap.” Adding to the conundrum is the removal of the incentive to work from jobs paying a wage well below what would be considered a livable wage, and you create some major challenges to fill existing jobs, as well as moving people beyond the subsistence of public assistance and programs like TANF, into employment that will support families and add workers to the tax rolls.
There seems to be a serious disconnect between the current model of preparing students with the skills required, and the jobs that are available if those students had the requisite skills. Our current model needs a major makeover because we’re pricing our future workforce right out of the market and not prepping them to be employable. There’s also the issue of college loans, which is well-documented by Matt Taibbi in a recent Rolling Stone article.
One way out of this predicament, and a solution that offers an affordable alternative to the education-industrial complex, is the development and availability of programs leading to post-secondary certificates. This is a solution that’s being championed by people like Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. I heard Carnavale talk about this at a higher-ed symposium a couple of years ago. He also happens to be a graduate of Thornton Academy, the alma mater of my late father-in-law, Joe Tarazewich. Like Joe, Carnevale knows his stuff, especially when it comes to workforce development and training.
I have been advocating for and up until a year ago, had been part of a group of partners and other community leaders leading the push for a foundational skills education, which provides the core set of middle-skills supported by the likes of Carnevale, and Jamie Merisotis, CEO of the Lumina Foundation. Lumina was one of the funders of this groundbreaking report that Carnevale was one of the authors, in 2010. The WorkReady program, one that I was active in building capacity for, was developed to provide some of these basic, soft skills and is a perfect foundation for the certificate-based training beyond K-12 that Carnevale and others are advocating.
I’m following the progress of a bill in the Maine Legislature with a great deal of interest. LD 90 is a bill that looks at Maine’s workforce challenges, and is making an attempt at taking a strategic approach to addressing some of the challenges Maine is facing. Of course, our workforce has some structural disadvantages built-in, namely our aging population. Policy advisors have offered other strategies that I believe also must be adopted.
I’m anxious to see what happens with this legislation that seeks to create new degree programs in high-demand fields, as well as expand existing education programs. It also created a scholarship fund for post-secondary degree programs, enacted a more seamless credit transfer system and restores funding for the Maine Apprenticeship Program. Additionally, soft skills are on the radar of many in the 126th Maine Legislature, especially among Democrats, but also some forward-looking Republicans, too. I think it’s a step in an important direction, and addresses Maine’s workforce challenges, focusing on important initiatives that Maine’s future economic success requires. As they say, however, “the devil’s in the details.” I hope it’s not just another cover job for maintaining the tired status quo.
One last point. We need to stop telling our high school seniors that the only hope for career success is acquiring a four-year degree and $100,000 in debt. Merely pushing kids to embrace a model might look good on high school’s graduation stats, but damning them to a lifetime of debt and low wages does not constitute career guidance, or preparation for life.
I’d also recommend watching this clip from August 23, when Taibbi, Anya Kamenetz, and Robert Kelchen were on with Chris Hayes, talking about the soaring cost of a college education and the perceived value. Start watching at 02:49.