Years ago, when I moved to Raleigh and lived in an apartment I met a guy by the name of Jay. Jay was as big as a linebacker and had a heart and personality as big as his stature. He had permanently pinked cheeks and loved a good beer and great music. Jay had gone to college and gotten some kind of environmental and safety engineering degree that landed him a job with an insurance company. They were the ones who were responsible for moving my friend Jay to the Raleigh area. His job was to go into large manufacturing facilities that processed agricultural products. He only went in to point out potential problems and then after there was an accident. This means his days were filled with seeing things that could hurt people or seeing people hurt and killed because the companies didn’t listen to him, and then so much paperwork after the fact that his apartment was covered in it. This was not a good fit for a fun-loving guy who liked to drink beer and socialize. So why did Jay do it? Why did he spend tens of thousands of dollars in college tuition and years of his life preparing for a career that was so completely at odds with his personality? A natural follow-up question is: How do we stop this from happening to other people in the future?
Big Problem: Mismatch Between Career Investment and Job
We have a somewhat lacking system right now for career sampling. How this system is currently structured starts career exposure via field trips and tours in primary and middle school. As we advance in our basic education there are career-related projects and some light job shadowing which happens primarily in high school. After high school there is the potential for apprenticeships, college, the military and/or internships. That’s where the problem starts, a substantial commitment towards a career is expected by the youth at this point in their lives. You’ll notice that an extended period of time working in various environments was not part of the mix of career sampling. This system simply doesn’t work well. Without going into all of the research and statistics, there is a huge mismatch between the training most people receive in these post high school years and the career they eventually fall into. About 1/3rd of the current workforce has formal higher education training in their chosen career field. That means 2/3rds either received no training or has high cost training in an unrelated field.
I’ve already discussed the mismatch between biology and the needs of our technically advanced workplaces. If our young people, follow their biological programming they can fall off the rails of career prep. They become the modern proletariat. That’s alright for some. Let’s face it, even though the numbers needed for unskilled labor are shrinking, I don’t ever foresee a time when we won’t at least need some Honey, Sweetie, Baby types. That being said, the big problem isn’t the insanity of biology, at least not for the purposes of this narrative. The big problem is all of the resources that have been wasted on training people who are doing something completely different than their educational investment. It’s the English major who is now a mortgage underwriter or the aerospace engineering degree holder who is earning a living programming video games. It could be the social services graduate who now is an admin at a home builder.
Like all of the Big Problems, Big Solutions articles we start with the question of how did we get here? The answer with the career awareness problem is fairly simple, if a bit long. We got here because of a perfect storm of technology advancement and government. It all happened in the last third of the 1900’s. In the earlier part of the modern industrial age a child could graduate from high school and have enough skills to go work at a manufacturing facility and have a pretty good life. It was usually hard and dirty work but it paid well. The jobs that were less physically demanding and paid really well went to the children of families who had enough money to send their kids to school to learn higher level management and analytical skills, ie white collar work.
The first government contribution to all of this had to do with continually expanding free trade agreements. More free trade generally equals more wealth for all levels of the country’s population so agreements like NAFTA and its predecessors were sold as being great for the country. The theory is that the different countries will do what they are best at and so there is universal growth inclusive of more jobs and more money paid for doing those jobs. Most honest economists would tell you there would be a bit of economic and workforce upheaval as capital and manufacturing flowed to where they met their natural state of greatest equilibrium, i.e. you’d lose some of the less desirable jobs in America but the savings and profits would create more jobs than the trade destroyed, or so was the theory. A few other things were going on in the world that we didn’t account for, at least not in the national conscious. One of them was that the rest of the world’s economies were heating up after being decimated during World War II. This created greater international competition for the jobs that did remain in America. The second thing was that the encroachment of the information age which suppressed job creation as the productivity enhancing automation expanded. These days we use the term ‘jobless recovery’ to describe the current employment malaise but this has been going on for decades to lesser and greater extents.
So John Q. Factory worker, and really all of society in the mid 20th century sees two things happening. They see that the physically difficult but good paying jobs which only required a high school education are going away. They also see that a college education means more money and a better quality of life. What do we conclude as a society? We decide that college should be for everyone! Policy is enacted to allow anyone to go to college with government supported grants and student loans. Guaranteed student loans, in practicality a third party payer system, creates generations of customers for colleges and universities around the country with virtually limitless money to spend. The benefits of a liberal education are promoted to parents and youth alike. There is no faster way to get someone to sign on than to tell a population of inexperienced and emotional customers to follow their passions, i.e. they can do whatever they want and that there is a pot of gold waiting at the end of the collegiate rainbow. College enrolment soared and the nations university infrastructure exploded as well. A personal aside that underscores this trend was from my own higher education experience. When I went to the University of Central Florida in the early 1990’s the campus was made up of a handful of buildings. Today I was told the campus is so big you need a GPS to keep track of where you are.
Going back to the third party payer system known as student loans, all this easy money created bloat in the college system. This is one of the major underpinnings of why education has gotten so expensive. If the system wants more money, it’s relatively simple to just raise the prices. There isn’t much pressure on the part of students to walk away as they don’t personally feel the impact of the increased tuition costs. They aren’t savvy enough to understand that by signing on the dotted line, they are signing up to a life of indentured servitude until their $60,000 to $200,000 dollar education in something like the liberal arts is paid for.
Another major challenge that affects the economy is the displacement of trained tradespeople. Right now the amount of people we are training for the trades does not come close to meeting the needs of industry. Wages have gone up so much that in many cases the kid with the $80,000 in debt from Liberal U winds up going back to the local community college for a mechatronics certificate or nursing license. It’s the only way they can make enough to pay for the student loans while they are paying for other things like a roof over their head and food on the table.
The Argument in Favor of Our Existing System
It should be noted that there is an argument to be made for the current system. There are labor laws on the books and a culture of hyper productivity in the workplace. I don’t know a single corporation or institution that encourages lots of young teens to spend time in the professional working environment. It’s possible if you own a small business and bring the kids to work with you. They will learn the family business through immersion but that’s very rare. Because of the restrictions on youth in the workplace mostly career sampling has to happen in college. The higher ed community would argue that taking the different elective courses provides a good enough sampling of the different career options. A college guidance counselor would say that if the student takes an anthropology course and decides they love that subject, then clearly a career in anthropology is a great career option. Forget that there is minimal alignment of the course and degree offerings to actual anthropology jobs which would make sense if the system was really about meeting the workforce needs.
The social aspect is also much vaunted. I have one friend who has strongly argued that college, or more specifically the collegiate experience, is worth the money. She argues that it’s one big party, and it’s precisely this point where the value lies. What she calls the party, specifically her interactions with other people at the four year long social exchange known as college, helped her develop her own unique personality. She contrasts who she became with the college influences to who she would be if she just stayed at home and didn’t go to school. She’s partially right to be sure, the melting pot of a four year university campus creates amazing opportunities for personal growth. Sadly no matter how socially developed one becomes, it doesn’t help pay back those tens of thousands in student loans for training that isn’t being used.
All of this brings us to our big problem. There is no good way to make career decisions before a massive investment in college. The investment is a crapshoot where 2/3rds of the players loose. How do we fix this issue? How do we get much closer to matching the advanced education to our ideal profession?
Big Solution: Lifestyle Immersion
The big solution here is simple but challenging to enact. We need something that looks like total immersion.
I have had this idea for a while. I used to think that we needed to have all high school kids work part time. My thoughts were that they should be in school from early morning until mid-day and then work the rest of the day with pay. I’m still working off that assumption, but I believe the true big solution needs to be taken a step further.
I believe that the real solution is an extended sampling program inclusive of lifestyle immersion. I like to think of it as micro-apprenticeships. There needs to be enough time in the different working environments to really understand the job and the lifestyle that goes with the job. It’s got to be more than just job shadowing for a couple of days for the lifestyle to sink in. In one example, when I managed a career center it took six months to really wrap my head around the process of it all. There also has to be a planned rotation to it with months spent in the different environments.
The way I see it, if we have a young person who doesn’t know what they want but they know they want to save the world. We can start by having them work on an organic farm. The immersion will have them live in a carefully chosen average household. They will need to work their tail off at 4am, drive the tractor, work with the local area grocers, etc.. After six months of this they will really understand if a truly green lifestyle is for them.
We also have them do other things like work as an accountant. Again we want them to live in the average house for that type of job. They need to be at a desk, doing the books. Obviously without the training we’d have to have everything double checked for accuracy. They would do other accountant things like go to chamber networking events and put in extended hours at tax time. Other options could include working in social services, working in medical, working in manufacturing, hospitality, and every other major sector.
If possible there should be a geographic element. I would like to see the students spend months and maybe years working cities, suburbs, and in the deep country. They should live in everything from campers in trailer parks to million dollar McMansions. The experience should include working with their hands, working with their brain, and working in dramatically different environments like working in government vs working in the private sector. It would be ideal if we could figure out a way for them to work for themselves or at least work for a startup entrepreneur. Every kid should know what it’s like to work a trade show and in a construction environment.
All together this program would help foster personal and professional maturation as well as deliver a structured set of immersive experiences before extensive education expenditures. Considering the students are working, they can earn education credits a bit like how PTO is earned. Over time they will earn enough to cash flow their advanced education with limited or no student loan debt. The current student loan crisis is real. Every person I have ever discussed the situation with agrees that an education without a loan attached is an ideal situation.
How would all this look? How would it play out? Let’s use a fictitious student named Johnny. When Johnny enters high school he starts going to school in the morning for a few hours and then spends the majority of the rest of his day working. It’s light duty work at first, maybe retail or food service. The jobs are carefully managed so that Johnny spends half a year working in one area and then moves to a different sector of the economy. The jobs would require the students to be paid at a level commensurate with the average worker. A chunk of the money the student is earning is banked, possibly in some sort of shared account like a pension. The rest goes into Johnny’s paycheck allowing him to have a personal experience that different jobs and different industries pay at different levels. Little Johnny would move into jobs requiring more maturity as he himself matures. This part would admittedly be a bit tricky because kids mature at different ages. Johnny may even go to different jobs/schools in different parts of the country so that he can experience life in different environments. He can go with a cohort of student workers to mitigate the emotional effects of leaving home. I can see a situation where the 11th graders have a first semester working in government agencies and second semester working in manufacturing. If we aligned specific grades to specific industries, then that consistency will help the industry adapt to their young workforce. Work is now school. This can continue past high school graduation. Instead of college, Johnny gets to go to even more advanced work cohorts. At some point Johnny has sampled enough industries and earned enough in his college savings account that he can start attending classes or advanced training in the trades with zero student loan debt. At this point he’s realized he’s got more of an intellectual mindset and so he starts specializing his sampling on different thought-based jobs like programming or research. Maybe he really likes working with his hands, so he can start to specialize in all the construction arts. If he likes to build things, enjoys the lifestyle of a contractor, then maybe he now has a work / school balance that changes construction trades every six months. First semester it’s as a plumber, next electrical, following year it’s framing. All the while he continues to earn and save into the education fund while potentially attending some classes if the work commitments allow for it. This whole concept is a bit like having a military GI bill only with career sampling as an experience rather than military service. Johnny eventually graduates later in life, possibly as a programmer, maybe as a general contractor. The point is that at the end Johnny has an education, and the education directly correlates with what jobs he is most compatible with and interested in. Johnny also has the benefit of all of this work experience from his career sampling so he’s highly in-demand.
So where the old program was: Start with a vague idea of a career, go into massive debt, realize the degree doesn’t work or the working environment isn’t ideal then eventually stumble upon something that can be done even if it doesn’t relate to formal training. The new idea is work in a bunch of different places that need help, i.e. demand. Earn while learning and develop an innate understanding of likes and dislikes. Also, part of the new idea is exposure to and consideration of lifestyle of the different jobs. Understanding on a visceral level if the sacrifice is worth it to live like an MD in the country club or it’s better to be a Mechanic in the trailer park. All the while the working is earning advanced education resources.
As I said at the beginning of this article, the government, specifically the guaranteed student loan infrastructure, is one of the major factors that drove so many into the problem. Child labor laws are also a component of the problem, at least with the younger kids. It stands to reason that if legislation was instrumental in creating this big problem then legislation that creates incentives to get youth into work needs to be part of the solution.
At the time of writing this article, the nation is experiencing one of its low unemployment cycles. Regularly I work with employers who are lamenting over and over that they don’t have enough people. In my experience they all pretty much talk to the same drumbeat. “Nobody understands my industry, it has a bad reputation” they say. This is partially true. I’ll also hear “If I could just get more parents and students to understand what we do they would be happy to work with us”. That’s also partially true. I say partially true because there are deciding factors beyond familiarization.
Another major issue is youth labor laws. We used to have children work, but then that was deemed cruel as employers, at least the unscrupulous ones, took advantage of the child labor. The practice was mostly outlawed even in situations where it was enriching to the life of the child. As an example of enriching employment, it can easily be argued that working for two hours every morning on the family farm before the school bus comes is a strong character building exercise. Unfortunately family farms have all but disappeared, at least as they existed in centuries past. Today most jobs are in situations like office environments, service business, or advanced manufacturing and construction. Clearly there are different needs in the different industries, so looking at youth placements, different jobs should be carefully considered for different ages or maturity levels. No matter the actual placement the priority should be for time in the labor market at least a part of each day, even if it’s only a young teen or tween who is acting as a gopher.
Speaking of maturity, one argument in favor of keeping children out of working environments is that maturity is needed for safety. Right now there is such a focus on safety that the idea that there would be even infinitesimal risk for accidents for youth on the job is abhorrent to managers and HR folks. I know because I recently tried to make a case at a meeting that accidents happen in school, they happen at sporting practice and they happen when kids are in cars with their buddies. I argued that the working environment is safer than all these activities and many other things kids do daily. The HR person I was discussing it with refused to even consider the idea. The only way that I can see around this deeply embedded culture of risk avoidance are government mandates to take part in this system of exposing youth to work inclusive of Insurance and tax breaks for eliminating the risk any business would potentially have in the case of an accident with a child.
So what does this potential big solution get us? The biggest ‘get’ is that there will be significantly less student loan debt and wasted time in school. This may not be as much of a desirable outcome for the educational institutions of the world as it is for students who just want to get on with life. I suspect the university and college systems will shrink and change course. I believe that our whole educational infrastructure will have to adapt quickly to provide more slots for real jobs, the jobs that actually exist. They won’t be able to have as many liberal arts programs as the students won’t easily be attracted to those areas as they have already learned what jobs and skills they need for the lifestyles they want. I can easily see a student who likes music history saying, that’s nice as an elective but not a major. My major better be engineering because when I worked at the theater and lived with the music guy’s family they were all broke and lived in a commune but when I worked at the engineering firm they all got to go out for drinks every night and drive awesome cars. Ultimately, after the realignment, the education systems will better match what is needed by professionals and companies, which was the whole point of education in the first place.
Another major change will be higher productivity as we get more people to work earlier. From the employers and economic developers standpoint this is a huge win. What is the net productivity added to the economy by college and university students who are not working or just have a part time job? What would it be if all of them were working as a main gig and education was happening in tandem with their economic productivity?
Will it happen? Like most Big Problems, Big Solutions I propose I know the answer is probably not. The closest we will come is expansion of full apprenticeships, not these proposed career sampling micro-apprenticeships. Should we make something like this happen? I think we should. A deep understanding of careers and a little maturation before the commitment is made to an expensive and extensive educational program is not a bad thing. Plus, there is one other added benefit. I know for a fact that a little hard work never hurt anyone. Don’t believe me? Just go ask a farmer!
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