In less than a month, primary school, middle school, and high school students will return to classrooms across the United States, as will community college students, four-year college students, and university undergraduate and graduate students.
Parents, guardians, and administrators will wish them well.
These students, however, will need more than well-wishers and encouraging words if they are to succeed in school and in the years after they graduate. Certainly by their high school years—perhaps even earlier—students will be under intense pressure to emerge from their educations with readily marketable skills, skills that will lead immediately to good-paying jobs, the wherewithal to begin to pay back student loans, and, possibly, the opportunity to move out of their parent’s homes.
Yet, many—too many—will not achieve any of the above. I worry about them. And the educational system of which they are the products.
Despite more than a half-century of practice in analyzing skills and employment trends, forecasts of future employment needs tend to be reliable for just a few years, perhaps only the time needed to complete a bachelor’s degree. The pace of change—in the economics of the global marketplace as well as in the advance of technology—is indeed that fast. As a result, many students are only marginally prepared for the present and woefully underprepared for the future.
There is, however, another and more basic cause for concern. And it stems from the pressures being applied by parents and the marketplace for students to graduate with skills matched to the moment. Such pressure does students—and ultimately manufacturers and other employers—a great disservice. Education is not—nor should it be—simply the acquisition of specific skills and techniques. Education is—and should be—about acquiring the bases for asking questions about skills and techniques and principles. Education is—and should be—about challenging current and conventional thinking, whether a subject is English or engineering, French or physics, math or music, programming or probabilities.
I argue not for a wall of separation between education and work. Quite to the contrary. We need to bring them together in a process of lifelong learning. Admirably, some of the best schools, colleges, and universities in the country are encouraging their students to learn about the entrance requirements for the wider world of work in which they will one day seek jobs. And some of the best companies in the country—including any number of manufacturers—are hiring young people who bring not only knowledge to their jobs, but also the ability to ask questions—lots of them—and to think critically and constructively now and in the future.
This is another of a series of occasional essay by John S. McClenahen, an award-winning writer and photographer who retired from IndustryWeek as a senior editor in 2006.