Between eating my morning bowl of cereal and pouring my first cup of coffee, I flipped on the TV to Morning Joe. The featured guest sitting at the table happened to be some economist from some magazine who had the solution to this nation's economic woes. It turns out that there are millions of unfilled "blue collar" jobs, like manufacturing or plumbing, that could be filled if we could steer young people to them. Unfortunately, we keep directing people to college, telling them that's the only way to get ahead in the world.
These points made sense, except that just yesterday Joe and Mika interviewed some economist from some magazine that had a different solution to this nation's economic woes. It turns out that there are millions of unfilled "white collar" jobs, like accounting and engineering, that could be filled if we could steer young people to them. Unfortunately, we keep saddling people with low expectations, not realizing that those with college degrees make $1 million more in a lifetime than those without college degrees.
These points also made sense, and I became confused. How can both going to college and not going to college be the right call? What should our teenagers do so that they can fill the jobs that employers need filled? Where should I position my daughter so she can be most successful? We need to direct the young somewhere, but which which path are they destined to follow?
Of course the biggest problem with both economists' solutions is that they left out the most important variable in the equation. With over 40 minutes of air time combined, and not one person mentioned asking these high schoolers where they wanted to go. By following the conversations, it almost seemed that as long as we could agree with an economic ideology, we could just place our young into the career paths that fits society's needs. After all, they're just cogs in our machines.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" used to be such a basic question of childhood. I remember being asked this since I was six or seven, giving different answers during different developmental years. For a while I wanted to be a baseball player even though I couldn't catch a ball. Then I grew into computer programming, then writing, then film and television. Eventually I settled in communications, which is rather abstract field that embodies everything that I was truly interested in (except baseball). And while it hasn't been the easiest path to prosperity, I'm now doing a job that I'm excel at and that I love.
However, I grew up in the empowerment age of the 80's and 90's when hippies were having kids. Nowadays we're in an economic slump, and time's are tough. It's a cold, cruel world where student loans and minimum wage both rage out of control. We have a skills gap and an education crisis to deal with, plus an income disparity that you can drive a Mack Truck through. We need to tell kids what to do, not listen to what they want.
Except have you ever seen a successful person who hates what they do? Do you think Mark Zuckerberg gets up every morning and says "F*&#@$g social media!"? Does Stephen Hawking complain to everyone he meets about the awesome power of the universe? No, they like what they do, and then do it to the best of their ability. Then they get up the next morning and do it again.
That goes for us "normals," too. About two weeks after we first bought our refrigerator, it decided to stop working. After a quick two-hour call to Sears, they sent out a repair guy to see what was wrong. This guy that arrived spent about ten minutes diagnosing the problem, two minutes mending the appliance, and twenty minutes showing me how to fix it myself if the problem ever happened again. It turns out that he's been a repair guy for 23 years, and he loves it. In fact, he turned down a job managing the service shop because he'd "rather fix stuff and not fix people."
We all have friends like that who get jazzed about HVAC systems, or architecture, or marketing, or whatever. I know my insurance agent is entirely too wound up about annuities, but that's what makes him a great insurance agent. Perhaps we help our rising workforce focus on this mindset instead of trying to fit people into an economic mold. I know employers needs are important, but I believe that they'll still be met while we cultivate some natural passions.
So call it a knowledge economy or a skills economy, I don't really care. I much rather live in the passion economy. I know about 80 million people under 21 probably would, too.
Jack Grubb writes an incredible blog, Losing the Internets, which is read by at least 37 people and over 2,100 Russian SPAM bots. In his spare time he helps small companies find their marketing voice. Jack currently lives deliberately in Appalachia, Kentucky with his wife, two daughters, Jack Russell and a Lego collection beyond compare.