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Education And Workforce Development

Dec 30, 2007
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?

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that training workers for only one job was a reasonable approach. How will they deal with constantly-changing skills that every job now requires? Consider the lowest-paid, minimally trained worker in any company. More and more, all employees have to be able to work with computer programs, train on new machinery, and handle equipment and chemicals that will often carry risks to the workers or the public. Then consider that as our students move into higher slots in the organization chart, that the quantity of skills, and the rate of change, will enlarge at ever-faster speeds. So by training students for just one job, that one job is a endless learning quest. So we see that with this approach, we have lashed ourselves to a lifetime of expensive continuing education for all employees. Unless employees are capable of learning on their own. And that gives us one clue 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.

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.

We must also ask how worker training fits into the democracy. Oppressive governments want worker training-- and too many businesses are run like oppressive governments. Certainly an oppressive leader-- in the nation, in the marketplace, or in religion-- does not want independent-minded people running loose. Oppressive organizations can hardly withstand questioning about the strength and ethics of the current leadership. To the opposite, the oppressive organization only wants worker bees, who will simply do, and not think. Oppressive organizations vs. free democracies is the last insight, and tightly sums up the problems of worker training in the schools of free peoples.

The idea that our schools are places for workforce training is entirely inadequate for a strong democracy. In our country, we say that any boy or girl can become the President some day. But this is untrue, because they ALL do. When they vote, every one of us is the Commander-in-Chief; all citizens govern the nation.

Our democracy is at odds with classical thought. In "The Republic", democracy is dismissed as a model akin to allowing all citizens to steer the boat; hence the concept that continues after 2500 years, of "the ship of state". The argument against democracy has been rejected in the modern world, of course, and we can see that it is precisely because everyone steers that the Free World also steers the world.

This only holds, however, if the citizens are independent-minded equals. In the poor, undereducated nations, democracy dies; it only flourishes where there is a thinking populace who understand the long-term obligations and implications of their choices.

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 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.

Democracy requires citizens; citizens who are scientists, philosophers, psychologists, economists, administrators, who can put it all together and derive some understanding of the world around us. Will the citizen who can do this also be a strong employee? Yes. And she will be a strong manager, a strong entrepreneur, as well as a strong civic activist, and a vocal and forceful advocate for progress, peace and prosperity. And when the marketplace shifts-- as it is continuously doing, at an ever-accelerating rate-- she will shift with it, because she will understand the fundamental concepts that will allow her to re-employ HERSELF.

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 do not need workers, at least not first. We need independent-minded citizens, critical thinkers, fast re-learners: in our community, in our political process, and in our businesses. If we train employees rather than voters, then government and communities will fail, and business will fail with them.

But if we educate citizens for the democracy, all of these will grow.
About the Author
Joseph N. Abraham, MD, is president of APSE, The American Public School Endowments, and booksXYZ.com, The Non-profit Bookstore. He wrote the book Happiness: A Physician Biologist Looks at Life.
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