Jobs and education for a lifetime

Jobs and education for a lifetime By Robert T. Tad Perry More and more the objective of formal education seems to be to produce a workforce to meet the demands of an exploding technology-driven economy. Among policy makers, educators and consumers of the graduates of various educational institutions, opinions vary as to which educational path is the more appropriate for the future of the individual and the future of the state's economy. One group asserts that more jobs in the future will require technical skills specific to a particular service industry. "That's where the jobs will be," they say. Another group maintains that the high-paying jobs will require at least a baccalaureate degree. "These people will manage the rest," says this group. Still another party laments the emphasis on job training at the expense of liberal arts and humanities. "We need people who know how to think, not just apply a skill," they declare.

Practically speaking, they are all correct. One of the truly remarkable attributes of the American educational system is its diversity. That can also be said about the American economy. The fact is that in the future we will need all kinds of workers, not just the doers and the managers, but the thinkers as well. We will need � in fact we need now � both the practical and the theoretical. The question of education is not one of which to choose at the exclusion of all others. Rather, the question should be one of which educational path to choose at any particular point in one's life. Life-long learning should be our goal for all of our citizens. Indeed, life-long learning will become a necessity as technology changes the workplace in ways which we have not yet imagined.

Assertions have been made that South Dakota's six public universities and the four local technical institutes are competing for students. A recent front-page headline in a statewide newspaper proclaimed that South Dakota postsecondary students were fleeing the universities for the technical schools. According to the article, 72 students (approximately 0.27% of the total fall headcount enrollment at the six state universities) transferred to one technical institute from the state universities. The author failed to mention that in Fall 1998 more than 130 students transferred from the local technical institutes to the state universities. That very act confirms that some students recognize education occurs on a continuum. The appropriate certificate or degree for some may not be sufficient for others.

After all, it was the technical institutes and their supporters who convinced the Legislature in 1998 to require the articulation of technical institute general education courses to the universities. Initially the Regents and the universities had practical concerns that the courses presented for transfer would meet the academic rigor required to maintain accreditation standards. We now recognize that the technical institutes acknowledge that an associate's degree in an applied field may not be the conclusion of formal education for some people and that appropriate academic preparation is required for further education. Experience in the workplace will convince some that if they wish to occupy the decision-making positions they will need the credentials to climb that ladder.

Others assert that university courses do not have practical application, that students cannot do anything when they graduate. The Black Hills State University students in Donald Chastain's Descriptive Geometry class would like to disagree. They are learning to use computer technology to design mining tunnels that connect existing tunnels at precise locations. The Dakota State University students in Orinda Christoph's Consumer Behavior class work with local businesses to audit the behavior of current consumers and recommend changes in business practices to attract new customers. One of Robert Wood's University of South Dakota students received the Outstanding Service Award from the National Association for Government Training and Development for designing the Association's web site. These are just a few examples of the practical training available through a university education.

A university curriculum provides more than practical training however. All of us every day come into contact with educated people who exercise their judgement, that is to say, they look at specific situations, identify possible courses to follow, speculate on the outcomes of those actions and decide which step to take. Business people consider their companies' competitive future in order to protect existing jobs or to create new ones. Teachers analyze the needs of students and design learning strategies. Government leaders anticipate the future to ensure the real and human infrastructure for tomorrow is in place. The debate surrounding education policy is one example of how theoretical is translated into practical classroom instruction that affects the kinds of jobs for which people qualify.

The best educational system for South Dakota, or any place else, is one that offers opportunities, that never closes the doors on anyone. Our debate must not be whether a technical institute graduate will get a better job than a university graduate. That becomes a game of swapping anecdotes. There is room in South Dakota for both. Employers need both, but for different kinds of jobs.

Our debate must rise above that argument. Our debate must center on encouraging all South Dakotans to pursue education for a lifetime. Through postsecondary education and training we can create a critical mass of trained workers, competent managers and futuristic thinkers. Education occurs on a continuum. Individuals must find what is right for them at any particular time in their lives. As with any choices, however, there are consequences. Short-term educational programs yield earlier employment but limited advancement. Longer educational programs result in greater lifetime earnings and job flexibility. The people of South Dakota should understand this. Sound education policy should reflect it.

Perry is executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents.

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