Better Productivity Through Education

Over my last few blog posts I’ve been musing on the technology revolution that is currently taking place and how it may affect jobs in the future.  To summarize my thoughts so far: technology is increasing worker productivity which means that fewer workers are needed to make the same amount of stuff.  Those workers who are displaced must learn to value creation that is greater when it is done by humans rather than by technology.  Basically, they need to be skilled workers.

The public education argument over the last twenty plus years is that our education system is failing to provide students with the knowledge and skills that they need to compete in today’s world.  The United States is regularly outside the top quartile in international education rankings.  The big discussions are around standardized testing, teacher competency, and budgets.

I think that the larger question is whether we are teaching our kids the right things.  It seems to me that we need to be focusing on what our employment world will be like 15 years from now rather than what it was like 15 years (or more) ago.  Let’s face it, since the Industrial Revolution, public education has always been about creating a better and more productive work force.  I strongly believe that vocational education (learning job skills) has to be tempered with a dose of the humanities (after all, it is what makes us human) but the end result must be that, when someone finishes their education (high school or higher), they must have the skills and knowledge that allows them to be productive members of society, if they so choose.

Having had four kids go through the education system, my mix of disciplines would be 45% creative thinking (in which I would include math, sciences, and communications/language arts/reading/writing), 45% vocational skills, and 10% on the humanities (specifically history, the arts, and philosophy).  The basic requirement supporting all of the components is that the literacy rate needs to be equal to grade level – a 12th grader needs to be able to read and write like a 12th grader (and by this, I mean a real 12th grader from the 1950’s and not some watered down version).

Starting in middle school, students should be introduced to different types of vocational skills.  It seems, at the moment, that this tends to be focused on computer sciences and programing skills but we also need to provide introductions to engineering (especially for girls), chemistry, and industrial arts.

And here is where I think we have the disconnect.  If we assume that technology will continue to replace low skilled or repetitive job functions then our work force needs to gravitate to those skills that technology can not easily replicate or can not be outsourced to lower cost skilled workers around the world.  There are only so many software code writers that we are going to need in the future.  What is just as important is having a work force that can create value with their hands.  We need to develop and encourage the future plumbers, carpenters, electricians, steel workers, and craftsmen of both genders.  As our work force becomes more local and decentralized we need to celebrate those who will help us build and make the things we need on a local basis.  We can only expect so much from the maker bots of the future.

As a society we need to promote craft skills through apprenticeships, extended vocational training, and job placement.  We also need to stop thinking of “blue collar” jobs as those jobs only suitable for people who “could not make it into a college” but, rather, as a legitimate alternative to the expensive and, in some cases, no value added university experience.  Only then will we have a skilled labor force that will take us through this technology revolution and to the opportunities beyond.

In my next post I will talk about how we are hoping to provide some of these skills to our CMSI team members in the future.