It used to be the practice when starting a career that entry was at the bottom and you learnt the business by working your way up. This was thought to be good for young people and gave them the practical knowledge that infused real life into what it was that they had learnt in school and in postsecondary places such as universities.
This seems no longer to be as popular as the notion that a degree will take you, if not to the top, then certainly to the other side of those lesser tasks that keep the business actually running. This ambition has further fed the growing view that a worthy goal is to see everyone with a degree level qualification. And the middle classes hanging on to preserve what status they have insist on nothing less for the next generation while those clamouring to join them see it as a ticket to ride.
It doesn’t stop there either. Governments in the western world have made an art form out of generating goals for the proportions of the population that should be degree qualified. The USA gamely wants everyone to have a degree, the UK and Australia link arms at the 40% mark. All three might be better devoting energy to seeing that all young people successfully complete secondary school!
The real issue is that such “stop only at the summit” approaches ignore the realities of how business and enterprise is organised. There are people working at the top of every organisation but there is also a larger group working at different levels below that. There will in some businesses even be a place for the unskilled provided that they are at least employable.
But the real gap is in the middle. If education systems are focussed on turning our degree level students in two groups (those who succeed and those who don’t) and with the encouragement of governments have persuaded the community that this is the favoured route to the top, fewer young people see the middle qualifications and skill levels as being worthy of the effort and attention. This leads to a shortage of the technically skilled and western economies turn to immigration to address the shortage.
Not only is such a situation bad for business, it doesn’t serve the needs of young people well at all. Giving to young people the opportunity to engage in applied and technical education earlier is emerging as a key strategy in retaining them in education and training and in developing those literacy, numeracy and digital skills that underpin all employment now. Evidence is that when engaging in technical and applied programmes at around 14-16 years, young people can not only discover a confidence in themselves as learners but also are inspired by a line of sight to a future job. In turn that job could turn into a career. Instead too many are being lured into a degree/university track and become the failure fodder for those that succeed.
Why, it should be asked, are western countries all madly addressing the issue of skills shortages and at the same time pumping increasing numbers into educational tracks that can never address those same shortages? The long term damage could be considerable to both economies and to individuals. We need to seriously address the image of the middle – no longer is it a middle earth populated by grease-covered grunting types who are “good with their hands” and answer to the orders of others. The modern middle requires a wide skill set, has a wide range of work situations many of which show the impact of technology on activity now. Leadership skills, team skills, and all that bundle of attributes that are sometimes called the “soft skills” are of the highest order in the middle. These are also the markers of the educational programmes that lead to CTE certificates and diplomas and associate degrees. By the age of 18 or 19 years those who have been taught well will have started on their journey.
The good news is that if they really have been taught well then they will be back because the middle is a good place at which to start a career. Not just good for them but also good for us.