Education: A change in paradigm?

by Judy Ferro

How do you react to these statements by Jeff Sayer, former director of the Idaho Department of Commerce?

“First, we acknowledge the purpose of education is to get a good job and improve our income. Second, we recognize companies are rapidly shifting their focus to skills and not diplomas for hiring. Third, we recognize industry is the primary customer of our education system.”

Does that irritate you as much as it does me? I didn’t raise my kids to be cogs in some industrial machine nor did I teach some 3500 others so they could be. A quick Internet search finds dozens of statements of the purpose of education and even the article in Forbes lists three objectives—citizenship, cultural literacy, and critical thinking–besides getting a decent job and competing in the world marketplace.

To me, the purpose of education is to open as many options as possible for each child. I’ve exercised options that kept me poor—staying home with the toddlers or working half time—and I’ve no desire to write about the joys of doing without, but knowing it was by choice made it more than bearable.

Being put off by our differences in educational philosophy, I still wanted to understand what Sayer has to say about the educational reform that Idaho needs.

“Month after month, over 5,000 high paying Idaho jobs remain unfilled; numerous Idaho companies have suspended growth…They can’t find enough talent.”

I heard that companies want to hire more but I’m never sure how to take it. How much of the shortage is the result of half of Idaho college graduates leaving the state? Or, as in the case of teachers, working conditions here making it impossible to do the job the way it should be done? I scanned area jobs in Idaho Works hoping to see those hard-to-fill jobs highlighted or something. I didn’t even notice any listings that had been posted months ago.

OK, I’ll conditionally accept Sayer’s assertion until I see what he recommends.

“The solution – we need to change our paradigm and focus on building specific talent pipelines. Talent pipelines are education channels, designed to train specific skills to meet a known need in the economy.”

A clear call for training in specific skills is hardly a new “paradigm.” CWI offers classes in Cisco networking, machine tool technology, welding, wildfire management and 25 other technical education fields. TVCC has fewer options, but some in rarely-found fields like horse production and helicopters.

Sayer gives two examples. One is coding classes. I’m a little surprised—computer programming is available at colleges and even some area high schools.

His second is, “Apprenticeships offer pathways to manufacturing positions that pay $60,000 with less than two years of training.” The state’s website lists nineteen available licensed apprenticeship programs in fields ranging from police officer and child development specialist to electrician and operating engineer; most sponsors appear to be unionized. Has Idaho been so successful in driving out unions that Sayer is suggesting we now develop government-run programs?

Or does the change in paradigm Sayer is proposing apply not to our education offerings, but in the way that Idahoans regard them. I’ve definitely worked with an administrator who considered suggesting that a student was not going to be a lawyer or veterinarian was insulting them.

Perhaps, as a recent editorial in the Lewiston Tribune said, what we really need is more high school counsellors prepared for career counselling. And, maybe, some upbeat publicity about blue collar careers?