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We’ve lost our bearings regarding economic reality

POSTED May 1, 2012 10:21 p.m.

What is wrong with us?
Imperial County, along California's border with Mexico, has the nation's highest unemployment rate at 26.7 percent.
Yet farmers have to hire citizens of Mexico who cross the border legally by the thousands to work picking crops at $9 an hour.
Young people are going into hock up past their eyeballs for student loans to secure a college education only to find out their education is ill-fitted for the job market.
Meanwhile, diesel train mechanic work paying six figures a year goes begging, as do many other skilled blue collar jobs.
There are lot of jobs out there that are not being filled by Americans. At the same time we keep pushing more and more young people into the college track that might be better served by vocational education or apprenticeships.
When did we start turning up our collective noses at honest labor and arguably overemphasis college education?
The answer is complex, but a big part of it lays in how we have subtly equated a person's worth to what they do. There has also been a blind commitment to the maxim that no one should be denied a college education, therefore everyone should be given every chance to get one even if it requires remedial programs conducted by universities to bring them up to speed.
In essence, the crushing message that is broadcast across the land is "you can do anything you want to do but you must have a college diploma." No one can deny there is value in education.
The real question is whether we are going at it the right way.
Ceres Unified is trying to remedy that with its vocational program that serves students with the intent of making them employable in specific careers.
The odds are that some of those students that go through the program and earn a certificate as well as a diploma and secure jobs in their chosen field will go back to school to pursue a business degree or to change their discipline.
They will mix their education with workplace reality, tempered by available jobs, the market, and learning whether what they want to do can support them financially and suits them. That contrasts with the current model where many people stay in school until they are 24 or 25 and discover either they cannot find employment in their chosen discipline or they don't really like the real world application of their studies.
As for avoiding $9 an hour jobs that involve intense menial labor, it almost seems in the previous generation's push to build a better world has inadvertently robbed us of many of the lessons that can only be learned from back-breaking work.
First, it is honest work. Second, it provides needed income to survive. Third, it should drive home the point that if you want a better life, education or applying yourself can deliver it. Four, it would temper what you do with post-secondary education to make sure you get the maximum out of it.
Too often, though, leaders dismiss anything short of a career with a college education attached to it as a failure. One of the first policy pronouncements made by former California Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig at a gathering of high school principals following his election in 1983 was that it was his goal to have every high school graduate in California to the point they could gain admission to a state college.
That is not an elitist position as much as it is short-sighted. Not everyone is suited for college, even those with a strong command of various disciplines. Plus, there is a great need for vocational workers that require specialized training and not university-level education.
If The Great Recession has taught us anything it is that as a country we may be losing our bearings when it comes to wedding education and our attitudes with the marketplace and economic reality.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.

 

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