Something crossed my mind while reading both a McKinsey report and a recent op-ed in the New York Times. We seem to have forgotten the importance of working to ready adolescents for the workforce as adults.
It polishes skills learned from the time we are age 3 in a way that classroom learning can only augment. In fact the root of not nearly as many adolescents working today may be an over-reaction to what progressives had to overcome to mandate education.
Before I get to the science, it occurs to me that I honestly don’t remember my parents needing to push me to start working for people other than family starting when I was 10 years old.
I held down 14 or so jobs working for an even greater number of employers before heading off to college. It was a far more forgiving route workforce readiness as an adult than many kids take today.
Workforce readiness has nothing to do how well or how far you go in school.
I’m sure my parents kept close watch on where and for whom but they seemed far more concerned that I just learn to enjoy working hard.
My mom’s only word of advice when I took my first job away from home was - “If you aren’t busy, grab a broom and make yourself busy.”
Taking heed of that advice made me stand out to more than one employer and later left me puzzled when doing the hiring myself that so many candidates seemed unready and lacking work ethic.
Today, many kids are well into college before they get workplace experience, when the the expectations are less conducive to learning your way around a workplace or how to work in general.
Since 1981, the percentage of 12th graders working 16 hours or more a week during the school year has fallen from 44% to only 25% while the percentage volunteering once a month or more has risen from 23.6% to 35.5%.
A recent survey of employers by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that they ranked employment during college much more valuable than extracurricular activities, a specific major, college reputation or volunteer experience.
This was even more true among those working in HR and in upper management.
Working at a younger age helps polish “executive function skills” and are found most important by employers. These include focus, working memory, cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, critical thinking, self-directed learning and making connections and perception taking.
The essay also introduced me to a much discussed article in Jacobin magazine early this year, where Miya Tokumitsu” argues that this “cultural mantra of our time” in fact “disguises its elitism as noble self betterment.”
In his 2012 manifesto entitled “Stop Stealing Dreams (what is school for?)”, famous entrepreneur and author Seth Godwin reminds us that 150 years ago people were incensed about child labor but the outrage wasn’t just moral.
He points out that the “economic rationale was paramount.” Kids were taking jobs away from adults because industries could get them to work for much less in the decades before education became compulsory in 1918.
At the time corporations and other businesses fought restrictions on child labor and mandatory education while fueling conservative rhetoric that “losing child workers would be catastrophic.”
“Professional confusers” back then used the same arguments they do today to stymie efforts to address climate change.
In fact, Godwin reminds us, that the rationale that finally weaned industrialists off child labor and in support of compulsory education was the argument that “educated kids would actually be more compliant and productive workers.”
Thus our schools today are still organized much like assembly lines with “scale much more important than quality.”
“Education,” he argues, was “not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn our adults who will then work well within the system.”
Beginning several decades ago, surveys of American workers have revealed that 7-in-10 are not engaged at work and nearly 2-in-10 were actively disengaged, e.g. trying to undermine others.
But conditions such as engagement and being in the “flow” aren’t about doing what you love but learning to love what you do.
In my experience people can find purpose in any work.
Mike Rowe agrees.
He is the producer and host of the TV show Dirty Jobs where he played an apprentice for a variety of jobs, now more than 200 over its eight seasons which are now available online through various services.
While preparing for a sequel series by a different name coming later this year on CNN, he has taken a lot of grief recently for a commercial he narrates for Wal-Mart entitled “I Am A Factory.”
I’m far more often a critic of big box formula stores and a proponent of paying a “living wage” but even for the 3.3 million Americans still being paid minimum wage or less, it is the practice, not the work, that we should condemn, something advocates miss.
I was intrigued at how nimble Seattle’s daring experiment is with raising its minimum wage to twice the national level, including a provision to keep teenagers employed.
That all work can be purposeful and meaningful appears to be the point of Rowe’s “Works” foundation where in part he has raised millions of dollars for scholarships in the skilled trades by selling memorabilia from his “Dirty Jobs” days.
Far too many of us have these wires crossed.
But they didn’t just follow their passion or wait around for work they could love.
We live now in a risk adverse society that makes it harder—but not impossible—for kids to get a job.
We’re robbing kids of the learning and character traits that can only be forged by early exposure to the work place.
Of course, I’m not talking about truly hazardous work such as tobacco fields where a report shows workers absorb dangerous levels of toxins.
A grim report by Human Rights Watch may overstate the dangers of farm work in general while trying to put a spotlight on abuses in a four state area that includes North Carolina.
Unfortunately, many of the parents denying their children a chance to work until well into college or even later may be the same parents who won’t let their kids ride the school bus or explore nature along the street where they live.
Judging from McKinsey research conducted mid way through the recovery from the current recession, we’re getting on track to regain full employment again by 2020 or soon after, about 20 million jobs more than we have today.
By then the recovery will have taken 14-20 years.
The great recession wasn’t just a recession, it marked a paradigm shift and not just because visitor-centric industries will be one of the top three drivers of job recovery by 2020.
Job growth after the new millennium has been at half the rate it was in previous decades. Business creation fell during the recession too, 23% in the first three years alone.
The labor market is plateauing while we’re generating a million and a half fewer college graduates than we need to meet the 2020+ goal.
But it isn’t just college they will need.
All of this is to say that work experience is as valuable as education for young people. We need to recalibrate to both/and.