The World Needs Ditch Diggers, Too

So, in the most recent Inside Higher Ed news feed, there was an article pointing to data that suggests we should only be encouraging every American to pursue post-secondary education only if we consider job training as said “education.” A panel of four policy experts is the focus of the article–the tenor of their statements left me scratching my head.

“We tend to think of college now as a place – bricks, mortar, lecture rooms, tenured faculty, college presidents,” Kolb said, “and I think that has to change.”

” . . .more workforce training and the use of for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan to give Americans the skills they need to work. “Just like we no longer have three network television stations, we have a variety and so we should rethink … the overall investment” the U.S. public and private sectors make in post-secondary education.”

” . . .pointed to data showing that the vast majority of workers never use the advanced math skills they learned in school and that the traits employers value most are non-academic: attitudes, communication skills and work experience. For many students, he added, the key to getting a job is having been trained to do a job. “The academic-only approach imposes a kind of sameness on young people that’s inappropriate.””

This last quote confused me most, as their data seemed to fly in the face of the sorts of skills I’m used to hearing about employers seeking–the sorts of skills I wrote about in August. So, I clicked the link leading to their data and found that it was pointing to feedback from employers of hourly production and front-line workers. Immediately, my confusion was abated and I understood this to be another iteration of the famous “Judge Smails” quip about ditch diggers from Caddy Shack.

I fully appreciate, in the face of the worst global recession we’ve seen since the 1930s, that any job is better than no job. But to suggest that encouraging young people to educate themselves with the hope of finding a better future than hourly labor or service-sector employment as “inappropriate” seems a bit of a stretch. I’m actually outraged by the suggestion–not only because university education was the trasnformational experience I needed to lift myself out of the reality of “the working poor,” but because job training is not education and should not be confused as such.

Let’s consider my favorite (perhaps not so) hypothetical scenario. Let’s say that in the fall of 2005, a high school graduate, whom we’ll call Bernie, decided that pursuing a major in Finance was a  great idea because “investment bankers make bank!” He attends a for-profit institution that has condensed his educational experience, clearing away anything but the coursework that gives him “appropriate” levels of ” training” and disavows  academic subjects allowing him to enter the workforce sooner rather than later. Bernie then emerges into the afore-mentioned, 1930s-rivaling, global recession to find that he has acquired no transferable skills from his “education,” is virtually unemployable in any field other than the one for which he received highly specialized instruction being masqueraded for a true education, and has to seek re-training to do some other kind of work.

Is this really a more responsible way to encourage young people to live their lives and envision their future?


About Art

I've been a higher education professional for over 15 years and an Academic Advising administrator for the past eight of those. I have a background in exploratory student advising and have spent a great deal of time guiding students through contemplating their personal college-to-career pathways. I've published, presented, and consulted on the intersection of social media and academia and am a firm believer in social media's power as a tool for engagement rather than solely information delivery. I've worked at public and private institutions as well as 2-year colleges and 4-year universities. I believe in Academic Advising as a teaching and learning activity, that learner-centered education is the key to students' academic success, and that as long as we keep students' individual goals and success at the center of our decision-making process, the problem of college-level student attrition can be solved.
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