Creating Value

March 22, 2011

Two articles:
The Frustrations of the Educated and Unemployed American
Here’s the Real Story of What’s Happening in Tunisia: A Higher Education Bubble

Both pieces explore the idea that the most dangerous group of people for a government to fail to accommodate and look out for is its college-educated population — unemployment rates among degree-holders in both Tunisia and Egypt are in the realm of 30-50%, and not that much lower in the US. An extraordinarily precarious situation is created when fewer jobs are available than there are qualified, educated applicants, and when people spend 17 (or more) years preparing themselves for the workforce only to find they’re unwanted, the psychological, social, and cultural effects can be disastrous and long-lasting.

Now I understand the devastation of unemployment. I really do. But I look at the ideas espoused in these pieces and I listen to the rhetoric of today’s political discourse, and I am confused.

It strikes me that practically the entire planet has set up their education systems to churn out workers who will fit cleanly into preëxisting positions and careers. We wind up with a largely similar base of knowledge, and tend to specialize just enough to fuel a satisfying (but not overwhelming) sense of individuality and theoretically to better prepare us for our “chosen” fields.

It’s a great big assembly line that includes the construction of the operators.

But it has become increasingly apparent over the last decade or so that the balance of this system is out of whack — we’re front-loading the line to create more operators at the same time as we’re making the back half of the line more efficient so we need fewer. And we’re not doing anything about it. The imbalance just perpetuates.

When I read about disaffected college graduates who haven’t been able to find meaningful, relevant work and have moved back home with their parents, I find myself wondering how we have so thoroughly failed to train students (and subsequently the adults they become) to create value. The idea that there will be a job available someday as a reward for decades of effort in school is so deeply ingrained in the public consciousness that when it doesn’t happen, devastatingly few people even think to regroup and approach their problem from a different angle. They just retreat to Starbucks and the lifeguard stand and Mom and Dad’s house.

Which is all wildly, excessively insane, because  the resources necessary to create a business, to explore the viability of niches in the market, to be innovative are EVERYWHERE!

Behold, the real power of the Information Age: you don’t have to wait to fill a position someone else says is valuable. You can create your own position that you decide and know and feel is valuable and worthwhile.

The potential here is incredible — imagine generations of workers who don’t dread ‘going to the office’ everyday. Imagine if we all actually cared about what we did. The social and economic impact would be outrageous — have you ever noticed how much more someone accomplishes when they’re excited about what they’re doing?

Every single high school student should be required to take an Intro to Business course that covers how to navigate the legal structures, licenses, permits, and bureaucracy involved in starting a small business. Every community college or community center should be offering these classes to the local population — if municipalities offered them for free they would probably make up the investment through increased tax revenue in a matter of just a few years. Since they won’t do this, I imagine there’s a pretty lucrative opportunity for some, ahem, small businesses to enter the pictures across the country and around the world to fill in this gap.

Every single high school student should be required to take an Intro to Marketing course that helps them learn how to display and prove the value they bring to the table to their appropriate market. Every single high school student should be required to take a class where they’re just told every day, “It is absolutely, completely, 100% fine if you don’t become a lawyer, doctor, or teacher. It is your life and you are entitled to actively choose what to do with it.

I hope and want to believe that the evolution in the general public’s mindset will inevitably evolve to accommodate the new era, but this revolution seems to not even be on the horizon yet. Odd, for such a simple, accessible message:

Don’t wait for value. Create it.