By James Thrasher.
A recent Wall Street Journal article by Peter Cappelli, “Why Focusing Too Narrowly in College Could Backfire,” caught my eye. Cappelli writes, “Students are told to learn the subjects that will best land them a job when they graduate. But that could be the worst thing they could do … The trouble is that nobody can predict where the jobs will be—not the employers, not the schools, not the government officials who are making such loud calls for vocational training. The economy is simply too fickle to guess way ahead of time, and any number of other changes could roil things as well. Choosing the wrong path could make things worse, not better.”
If this predictive approach is dangerous for college students, what should we think of President Obama’s call for U.S. educational leaders to consider the German approach to career development and job training, which slots 9 and 10-year-olds into permanent career tracks?
In his last State of the Union address, the president encouraged us to consider the German method in order to enhance academic success and employment in a global economy. This is highly problematic, because the German educational system completely disregards the presuppositional foundation of vocational calling: Individuals are designed with unique gifts, talents, and passions, and that the knowledge of how to successfully use one’s abilities and transferable skills requires the combination of time and self-assessment.
The future of German children is established by the fourth or fifth grade. Yes, 9 and 10-year-olds are assigned specific academic and vocational career tracks. The decision regarding their future is based on test scores, grade point averages, interviews, teacher recommendations, parental influence and the government’s forecasted job outlook. What did you want to be in fourth grade?
Recently, I spoke to seventh and eighth graders about vocation and calling, helping them to think about their personal design and their futures. They were clueless, and rightly so, because 12 and 13-year-olds are just beginning the process of discovering who they have been uniquely and wonderfully made to be.
So, I think this begs the question of just what is the purpose of education, specifically government-controlled education. Are we to develop round pegs to go into round holes? Are kids to be customized for a specific job as a means to an end, thus advancing the government’s deciphered economic needs? Should a child’s life progress from birth to the classroom to the assembly line, without allowing for the process of exploration and growth to lead the maturing young adult into a successful and fulfilling career?
As the director of Career Services at a private college for over 20 years, I have seen the success of the practical application of the career development process. It is indeed a process which takes time and maturity. That is a philosophical presupposition which must not be ignored. Career development progresses through the maturation of the individual, which leads young adults to an understanding of their unique design and vocational calling. Life experiences, summer jobs, internships, academic classes, job shadowing, mentoring, apprenticeships and work experience are very important elements of good career development and deciphering one’s vocational calling. But the German system defines the career slot for children at ages 9 and 10, before all these opportunities take place. The dye has been cast by the time these key experiences are introduced or even available.
Individuals today will have about 10 jobs in a lifetime, with four to five completely different careers in the midst of their job changes. How would such specific technical training fit into this picture? The German system is very rigid, rarely allowing for movement out of the set career track. But technology is prompting radical alterations in the needs of the marketplace every six to nine months. As the job market constantly changes, the possibility of a fourth or fifth grader remaining in a particular career path for life is slim to none.
What about the other skills needed to have a productive and satisfying life? A well-rounded education prepares the whole person. Plus, because the marketplace so rapidly changes, students need the wisdom, maturity, discernment and self-awareness to navigate their career paths.
Success in life is not found in being employed. Meaning, satisfaction, and joy are found in aligning one’s calling with work that provides an opportunity to serve and to fully utilize gifts, talents and abilities. Employment and the needs of the marketplace do not define the greatest good.
It is wonderful to live in a country where you can still ask your kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and know that they have the freedom to dream.
Dr. Jim Thrasher is the director of Grove City College’s career services office and the coordinator of the Center for Vision & Values working group on calling.
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