Working in the future now

Each time I hear someone claiming that we are preparing students for futures yet unknown to us, I wonder whether or not we have a basis for making this claim and whether it is in the interests of the students. “Waiting for the Future” seems to have the same level of hopelessness as “Waiting for Godot.”

But we can make some assessments of a likely future. Diane Ravitch, speaking at the conference I attended a couple of weeks ago noted that the future would in all likelihood have an increased emphasis on low wage jobs in healthcare, retail and restaurant services. Only 20% of jobs will require a bachelors degree or above. Despite this we continue to prepare students for middle class jobs – “We have,” she said, “lost our way”.

She mounted a huge case against the “pursuit of scores” which various policies – Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Racing to the Top” particular targets – and argued that gaining high test scores was only gained by drilling students and raising economic viability of schools.

“There is,” she thundered, “no skills shortage, only a jobs shortage.” The audience dutifully clapped and, it being in the south of the US there was much hootin’ and hollerin’. She continued her catalogue of grizzles, niggles and well-worn at the tired old targets. This was not the Diane Ravitch of old and she is honest about having changed her position on a lot of things. Good on her for this honesty.

Her address turns out to be essentially the first chapter of her latest book – “The Reign of Error”. This awaits me for a Christmas Holiday read.

But I did wonder about her claim that never have drop-out rates been lower in the US. I subsequently met no-one who could or was prepared to agree.

An interesting construction she placed on what was happening in the US was that people were “struggling to remain in the middle classes.” This was something that was repeated quite often not only in the conference but also in later meetings and discussions I had. The gap between low socio-economic groups and the middle classes was closing it seems not by raising those lower groups to a more comfortable position but by the middle classes losing their advantage. It would be interesting to see an analysis of NZ from this perspective.

But, back to the future. We prepare students for it not by waiting for it but by preparing them for the immediate future in a manner that sees the skills needed for life-long learning, for contributing to society as a worker, as a citizen, as a family member and as a well-rounded and able individual. In other words, there are jobs out there and young students should be able to go into them.

The challenge to education is that too many young people leaving schools have yet to acquire the skills, attributes, and disposition of an employment-ready prospect for an employer.

In the past it didn’t matter so much. Employers had lower expectations of entry-level workers who were often going into an apprenticeship where there was an expectation on both sides that they would be prepared to participate in the industry or profession.

And, I think this is important, there were many opportunities for young people with a modicum of get-up-and-go to work and demonstrate the attributes of a worker.

I had my first “job” at about the age of 8 as an “assistant” in my uncle’s grocery store – a benign and gentle start I will admit but I had to do the right thing and received 5 florins each Friday. Next came an opportunity when I was at intermediate school to work in a Hardware store during school holidays – packaging nails, and plaster of Paris, sweeping the floor and fetching and carrying and occasionally serving a customer (£1/10s per week).  At secondary working in school holidays in a sheep farm was the next step. More responsibility, expected to achieve certain critical tasks etc. The holiday employment when at University was, first, in the parks department in Hamilton at the cemetery working as a general factotum and asst. sector but I moved after that to five years of working with a drain layer.

There is nothing special about this. It was how things were. But the preparation for “real” employment happened long before I had a “real” job.

None of that is there now. All this work is done by adults. So it is over to educational institutions to build that preparation into the way they work so that young people are on the road to employment earlier than they realise and ready to go when the employer pulls the trigger on the starting gun.

  

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