We have all heard the stories about how American workers don’t have the skills to get the good jobs there are waiting for them, so American businesses have to hire people from other countries. This is meant usually as an indictment of public education, although it is really quite a stretch since the skills that are allegedly lacking are usually in highly technical jobs, not in jobs where high school students are likely to be prepared.
Consider an example of this is in the New York Times on Thursday. The story in the business section goes on at great length about how the CEO of a small web design company in New York City searched high and low to fill ten jobs and he couldn’t find anyone with the right technical skills. So he had to look abroad.
The article goes on to say that there are 300,000 jobs for truckers that are open right now. Someone in the trucking industry says they have a hard time holding on to good drivers. He says, “I think it boils down to high expectations. Trucking is the classic blue-collar job that nobody wants anymore.”
As I read this article, it became clear that the jobs that are open do not require a college degree. They require people who can speak, read, and write good English, people who have “social skills,” which I suppose means the ability to get along with customers and co-workers. (The narrative gets even more complicated if you read another story, same day, about a young woman with a community college degree who joined 26,000 others in line, hoping to get a job as an usher or a ticket-seller or food vendor at a new sports stadium. Note: half the African-Americans in New York City are unemployed).
The schools have never been very good at forecasting what the economy of the future might want, or what kinds of jobs will be open in five or ten years, or how the nature of work will change. Even people who do this for a living are often wrong or not around to held accountable when we find out that they were wrong.
This article reminds me that the role of the schools is unchanging: to equip young people with the skills and knowledge to be good citizens and help to sustain our democracy into the future. They need a grounding in science, mathematics, history, literature, the arts, world cultures, and foreign language. They need to learn the social skills of sharing, cooperation, and courtesy. The adults in charge need to encourage the development of good character, which is fundamental to good citizenship.
Some things never change. The job market will change, however, as it always has, and young people should be prepared to learn new skills and to take change of their own life.