In anticipation of Labor Day, the editors at National Review recently published a special issue of their magazine that focuses on the American worker. Despite featuring a variety of perspectives and styles, all the arguments made could be boiled down into two claims: (1) free market capitalism is better for American workers than socialism, and (2) more people should learn a trade instead of going to college.
Even though these two arguments are essentially correct, they are unpersuasive for most people. The writers present abundant empirical evidence and learned references to support and articulate their points, but they still lack credibility and originality. Any argument against a liberal arts education or socialism will inevitably ring hollow from hyper-educated policy wonks spending their days working for conservative think tanks. Furthermore, the arguments they make have already been made so many times that people now tune them out.
Ignorant and entitled as they are, millennials and iGens are well aware that college is not a guarantee to success. And, once someone tells them what socialism actually is, they know that this is not what they want. In fact, this awareness of no simple solution to adulthood is probably what contributes to the anxiety and isolation they feel. Even when they find a job, they feel like they should have done better, learning more useful skills and not wasting so much time and money in college.
Ignorance of What's Out There
The real problem is that young people don’t know what alternatives there are to college. Sure, some may have teachers who vaguely talk about “learning a trade” or how “college is not for everyone,” but this is usually where the discussion ends. The great majority of high school students who lack the good fortune of enrolling in a vocational program will continue taking their core classes and spend the rest of their time at school in various extracurricular programs, altogether oblivious to the job market and what career they would like to have.
To be fair, adults hardly know more than the kids. Beyond the jobs they do themselves, many parents and teachers are largely ignorant about available jobs, let alone those in high demand. Like the kids, they treat college as the default position, assuming it’s a safer bet to have a degree than not.
What results from this collective ignorance is a mismatch between jobs and workers—popularly known as the “skills gap”. Employers fail to find qualified employees with a special set of concrete skills and certifications, and employees go into debt earning college degrees that do not provide such credentials. This situation continues to place a drag on the economy (particularly in industries like finance, technology, and manufacturing) along with worker morale, leading to frustration on all sides despite a booming market.
Graduates from both college and high school simply act on what they hear from adults in their lives or what they see around them. High achievers work off the assumption that there are only three real job options—doctor, lawyer, or engineer. Low and middle achievers will dream of becoming videogame designers, famous actors, or pop stars, but then find themselves in less glamorous positions with a nearby employer. A lucky few may find work that they love, but the great majority settle for work they can tolerate.
Before overhauling the American education system, there is an easier way to address this problem. Seeing that people don’t know about the majority of jobs and industries that exist, schools should create a class for high school freshmen dedicated to informing them about it. This class would be content-focused and cover all the different industries and jobs associated with them. More importantly, they could learn about the certifications and education requirements of each career and start making plans for themselves.
Not only would this set students on a clear realistic path towards a job they want to do, it would give purpose to their current education. They would be learning to benefit themselves, not because their parents or the law compel them. As it stands, so many students, particularly those at risk of dropping out, suffer from having no goal beyond passing a standardized test, or having an unattainable goal like becoming a professional athlete—or worse, a professional gamer.
Two Obstacles to Creating a Career Class
However, there are two serious objections to creating a career class (or for those who like puns, a “working class”). The first objection is that industries and jobs are constantly changing and many jobs that students will do in the future cannot be predicted. Thus, schools creating materials about today’s workforce may be useless and backward. They would share the same fate as computer literacy classes in the ‘90s and become irrelevant as soon as they start.
While it is true that the work world is constantly evolving, it does not evolve beyond recognition in so short a time. Dominant computer companies today look different than those in the past, but many of the functions and structures in these companies are similar. The future of any industry will look a little different, but not so different as to render whole career fields obsolete.
That said, those responsible for designing the class would need to make sure to continually update the curriculum and leave room for learning about innovations as they occur. Students could stay current by reading periodicals on the economy and technology alongside their textbook to have an accurate view of what kind of work happens in their world.
The second objection to making a career class is that it would likely become a blow-off. This generally happens to such classes that are new and not tested (i.e., most elective classes). While intended to be relevant or useful, many such classes often turn into dumping grounds for students with glitches in their schedule. All too often, teachers with these classes generally give the kids busywork and show movies in order to make everyone’s lives easier.
To be fair, this is a challenge with any class, and the way schools address this is through testing. Although one may wax eloquent about the beauty and utility of learning a particular subject, if there is no test, there is no accountability or objective standard, and the success of the class relies on the goodwill of the teacher and his students. Therefore, states should devise a standardized test over the content covered to make a career class sufficiently rigorous for all students.
For those who worry about what a utilitarian-minded career class would make of the liberal arts (that is, learning as a form of exercising and realizing individual freedom), they should know that this would serve and fulfill those disciplines. Taught properly, the liberal arts are universal and uphold all kinds of work.
Moreover, when people have the chance to learn what careers exist for them, they finally have the freedom to choose their future and thus truly love it—one of the main priorities of a liberal arts education. When people pick their career in ignorance, they are not free and are deprived of truly loving their work.
It is time to address this issue, if not with a class that teaches kids about jobs, then with some other way that informs and empowers them. It is not enough that Americans find a job; they should find their vocation and finally experience joy in their work.