My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:
There is a growing chasm between the skills that people need to succeed in modern American society and the skills we are emphasizing in our system of education and our culture. It is a chasm that bodes ill for the future of our country and for our children.
A quick scan of the open job postings on any given day reveals some companies searching desperately for workers, but many of those job postings have been open for a long time. The hardest jobs to fill continue to be engineers, technical workers and virtually every skilled trade. While unemployment is low, underemployment is still high, and yet these goodpaying jobs continue to go unfilled. Why?
The primary reason is that we, as a culture, have devalued those jobs. We have benefited from the hard work of our forbearers and enjoy the most leisurely and advanced society in the history of the world. For the vast majority of Americans, our necessities are relatively easy to provide. This allows us time to focus our attention on our leisure activities and indulge our creative impulses.
This is not a bad thing and is certainly nothing for which Americans should apologize. We should be proud that our civilization has advanced so far that we are debating the relative merits of the iPhone versus the Samsung Galaxy instead of whether we should boil the water another 10 minutes before drinking it.
But through that advancement, we have devalued many of the jobs that make our advanced society possible, and in doing so we have closed the doors of many great opportunities for our children. We see this cultural trend manifest itself in colleges.
Simply put, far too many kids are spending money they don’t have to get degrees they don’t need for jobs that don’t exist. A recent survey by the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Letters and Sciences showed that more than a third of their graduates were working in jobs that did not require their degree, and 10 percent of them said their degrees were “irrelevant” to their jobs. Almost half of those surveyed regretted getting their degrees.
The problem is that there are very few jobs for people with degrees in Scandinavian studies, Latin, gender and women’s studies, comparative literature, etc. There is absolutely nothing wrong with studying those subjects, but most graduates from those programs will only find employment teaching others the same topic in an educational pyramid scheme. Such intellectual aerobics are useful, but have historically been the indulgences of rich folks who do not need to worry about gainful employment after graduation.
Meanwhile, while our universities are churning out highly educated people whose degrees have little value in the job market, there are great jobs being left unfilled. Culturally, parents want to brag to their friends on Facebook about how little Jimmy got accepted to Marquette far more than they want to say little Sally just started an apprenticeship to become a plumber. Yet the odds are that Sally will more likely be employed, better paid and debt-free in 10 years compared to Jimmy.
Additionally, as the education committee from the West Bend Chamber of Commerce recently revealed, the skills that are most valuable to employers have little to do with formal education. Punctuality, respect, manners, clean attire, work ethic and other soft skills were more important to employers than knowing specific subject matter. Employers can teach specific skills. They cannot teach people to show up on time and work hard.
Our society can use a few experts in medieval tapestries, but it needs far more skilled people who work hard at things we need. And some of our kids are better served learning to be a great crane operator than getting a master’s degree in comparative literature and folklore studies.