Saturday, October 14, 2006

Making the transition

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting lately. Part of it stems from my new job, which has me rethinking some of my comforting assumptions of the world, at least the world as I’ve seen it, through my narrow lenses. My new role is unique in a couple of ways. I work for a non-profit organization that works alongside the state system, but 50 percent of our board is comprised of members of the private sector. Additionally, I’m being asked to bring many of the skills and abilities that I’ve refined over the past four or five years, working at a very entrepreneurial level to a table that hasn’t traditionally embraced that world warmly. I thoroughly enjoy my new position, for both the challenges posed, as well as having the opportunity to have a small, but fulfilling role in helping some folks who are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. It has also made me reconsider and reevaluate my current worldview.

It has been enlightening and also humbling, to see how others have reacted to my being hired. To some, I pose an obvious threat, since part of my tasks involve actually taking programs that have been primarily ignored by the business community and reworking them, or creating new products that actually meet some of the needs of the private sector. I also view our customers, many who have operated at the margins of our society, as people and not products, or widgets, to be counted. That isn’t always in line with the philosophy of some in state government, many who have been in their line of work for far too long.

I’ve always considered myself well-informed about my state, particularly issues, like TABOR and other initiatives that had the potential to dramatically alter the way government functioned. I’ll never forget the referendums regarding nuclear power in Maine that were as hotly debated and contested—probably more so—than the current issue of high taxes, which surround the TABOR debate.

I think my interest in all things Maine, particularly its people and politics, comes from growing up during a period of activist fervor, which saw the state’s first anti-nuclear initiative. The first failed attempt to get the people’s endorsement to close Maine Yankee, the state’s lone nuclear reactor, located in Wiscasset, occurred, in 1980, which was my senior year of high school. The debate leading up to the first of three referendums, raged for over the prior decade, however. It had a formative effect on my sense of how issues are framed and how initiatives that are rooted at the most basic levels of politics can germinate and grow in power and influence.

The drive to shut it down was spearheaded by the infamous Clamshell Alliance, the anti-nuclear equivalent to our current wave of anti-tax crusaders, which now are led by Mary Adams. Prior to Ms. Adams, however, the very same rabble was being led around by the nose by the very crazy Carol Palesky, a woman with a long rap sheet of accounting misappropriations and strange behavioral meltdowns. Just like the anti-nuclear furor that existed in Maine, leading to not one, or two, but three failed attempts at closing a nuclear plant that the majority of Maine’s citizens supported, the current pro-TABOR posse will continue their crusade until Maine’s social service infrastructure is gutted and rendered inoperative, by fiscal strangulation. But I digress.

While my perception is that I had a solid handle on many things happening in my beloved state of Maine, one thing I knew little or nothing about, was how poorly our state’s workforce is being prepared to compete in the 21st century economy. I bought, hook, line and sinker, the theory that the demise and eventual death of Maine’s traditional industries like farming, fishing and logging signaled an economic endgame for much of the Maine that existed beyond spotlight of Portland, or east or west of the interstate. Additionally, that globalization was responsible for the death of another source of living wages, our state’s manufacturing sector.

For nearly three months now, I’ve been given a crash course in the realities of the “flat world” that writers like Thomas Friedman have written about, albeit too simplistically. For some reason, I allowed some of my ideological blindness to close me off from at least considering some of the issues raised by Friedman and to some degree, his NY Times counterpart, David Brooks, concerning the realities of a 21st century global economy and how North America fits into that world. While there are certainly still areas where Friedman and I part ways (as I believe the global economic world he writes about is often viewed from a position of privilege), I’ve at least come to a place where I’m willing to concede points to a few of his ideas. In my opinion, as well as others, he doesn't go far enough, however, pretty much letting educators off the hook, when it comes to preparing our youth and getting them real skills for the world of work.

If I had my druthers, I’d still flip the economic switch from capitalism to a setting more egalitarian (dare I utter it—socialism!) system, but unfortunately, I don’t live in the utopian world of theory and dreams, at least a world where I could be benevolent dictator—actually, I’ve awakened from my dream and find myself in some dystopian parallel universe where some spoiled, boorish, frat boy, is one temper tantrum from starting World War III, but I refuse to go there (at least in this post).

An article in Thursday’s Christian Science Monitor is informative about where our educational establishment needs to shift its focus. While one can argue whether we need to begin pushing everyone into the trades (a position I’d never endorse), we also need to move away from our current orientation towards pushing every high school grad toward a seat-based, four year college program of study. For one thing, it’s too time intensive and for another, it has resulted in massive numbers of 20-somethings who require additional training to obtain the core "soft" skills needed in the 21st century world of work.

Despite many indicators that run red flags up most flagpoles of warning, the educational establishment and college presidents across our land, keep marketing the four-year degree as the answer to every dream of success and wealth attainment. The reality is that we have created a nation of young people, poorly educated, working in jobs that require little more than a high school diploma, saddled with thousands of dollars of debt. These supposed “leaders of tomorrow,” inculcated with self-esteem from “helicoptering” boomer parents, are experiencing severe “buyer’s remorse” as they recall the promises made by the snake oil peddlers—their parents, teachers, career counselors and marketing shills in the media—that sold them the utopian idea that their degree in liberal arts, or computer science, or even electrical engineering, would translate into a fat paycheck, four years later. While for some, the dream has become a reality, for many more, they are now tasting the bitter pill of lowered expectations and disappointment.

While many Mainers and Americans continue to prepare its future workers for a world that no longer exists, some in our own state, as well as other countries recognize that the flat, or global world of work, changes rapidly and is bringing some new ideas to bear, in an attempt to ensure that its future workers have the tools to compete in that world, even if it stands on its head the educational models it embraced just a few decades prior.


James Aach said...

Given your experiences with Maine Yankee you might find this interesting - one man's attempt to put the good and bad of nuclear energy in perspective and in a popular format (a novel).

Dottie said...

Jim, I could not agree with you more. I believe I told your "better half", that I did not feel our sons were anywhere near prepared to enter the "real" world. Now $25,000 in school loan debt, they are working at jobs in totally different fields from their majors, just to make money and to get health care insurance!