The New York Times reported on July 2 that even in the current economy, many jobs are going begging. During the recession, “many employers moved towards greater automation, laying off more of their lowest-skilled workers and replacing them with cheaper labor abroad. Now they are looking to hire people who can operate sophisticated computerized machinery, follow complex blueprints and demonstrate higher math proficiency than was previously required of the typical assembly line worker.” According to the Times, employers say they are looking for aptitude as much as specific skills. “We are trying to find people with the right mindset and intelligence,” said one employer.
Dictionary.com tells us that education is development of the abilities of the mind (learning to know). Training is practical education (learning to do) or practice, usually under supervision, in some art, trade, or profession. The workforce of the future needs both education and training. Some individuals will do best concentrating on one process. Some will do better concentrating on the other. But there is a danger that current discussions of how best to increase the attainment levels of the population will lead to counterproductive polarization of these paths.
It is clear that bachelor’s degrees open unique doors for people. In most cases, not earning a four-year college degree limits both the set of personally rewarding experiences and the earnings opportunities available. But that doesn’t mean everyone should aim for a four-year degree—it doesn’t have to take four years to influence people’s mindsets and approaches to learning.
Many jobs require some postsecondary experience but not a bachelor’s degree. Many people are unenthusiastic about spending so much time in the classroom. Many people have skills and predilections better suited to occupational preparation than to liberal education. There is no doubt that whether because of their nature or because of their backgrounds and experiences, attempting a four-year degree is not the best choice for everyone.
But the fact that some people are and perhaps should be focused more directly on preparing themselves for specific occupations does not mean that they should avoid—or be deprived of—the opportunity for education—for the development of the abilities of the mind and learning to know, as opposed to only learning to do.
One reason education is so important is that life is about more than one’s work. Knowing how to perform a narrow set of tasks might allow one to put food on the table, but it might not allow one to make the most of all of life’s experiences. But even with a clear focus on the labor market, narrow training is unlikely to be a good long-term solution for most people. The specific jobs that are available today will not be the same ones available ten years from now and having the capability to learn new skills and the flexibility to adjust to new expectations is surely a prerequisite for a successful work life.
Obviously a stronger elementary/secondary education system is key here. But even without that, postsecondary institutions can do much more to prepare people for a dynamic and demanding workplace. Moves towards providing more efficient ways for people to acquire the necessary credentials quickly are certainly important. Acknowledging that not everyone will be in a white-collar job with a lot of decision-making responsibility is important. But we must be able to provide a diverse set of educational opportunities for a diverse set of occupations without giving up on improving people’s abilities to think and learn throughout their lives.