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Learn To Earn Or Get Left Behind In Global Workplace

February 2, 2017

Today is one of James’ favorite days.  Throughout his life Groundhogs’ Day was a time to trade a card with his mom and talk on the phone when the miles separated them.  They both loved the idea that a rodent might predict the fate of the weather.  After her passing I started to give little gifts that were aimed at observing the day.  Last year it was a mug with a slogan and today a T-shirt with a happy groundhog displayed.  However, I have been told that no live groundhog will do as a present!

For the first time the groundhog mood seems to be spreading and there was a package for me.  Which leads to this post about the changing times for American workers.   Since talking about Thomas Friedman is something that happens with regularity in our home James wrapped up Thank You For Being Late–the newest offering from one of our nation’s genuine thinkers.

I have long been a believer that education, in and of itself, has value if it never is used for a trade or profession.  The very act of learning and gaining insight is an asset.  With that education not only does one learn facts on a topic, but even more importantly the ability to learn how to think is acquired.  That last point is in short supply among far too many people in our country.

There was been much discussion and writings about the causes of the economic uncertainty which consumed the nation over the last election cycle.  There are no easy ways to make summations about the impact of automation or globalization on workers.  The causes are global and the remedies all involve a new mindset and additional government funds to provide support–as with the need for additional learning to meet the ever-changing world.

Which brings me to Friedman’s book.  Lifelong learning is a point that might scare some Americans who have not picked up any book–let alone a textbook–since high school.  But our economy dictates that one needs to learn as they earn.  Failing to achieve that means one is placed outside of the job market.   I can already hear the counter-argument that high achievers will reap more of the benefits from the proposal as that posted below.  That is surely true.  But if that is so than perhaps we need to vastly improve and demand more from our schools from elementary education onwards.  (Just yesterday I heard a 27-year-old with a straight face admit to not knowing what a bibliography was–and had no way to grasp its importance.)

At some point we also might need to accept that there is going to be a time of divides among workers and incomes until there is a realization about the need to continue to learn as one works.  After all the Industrial Revolution was a shock for many but it spurred others to create state-funded universal schooling.   We need to, again, think anew about the future ways education and work should meet. 

I do recognize the political disruptions this causes–we are living it in America as I write.  But the first task is to admit to the problem of having a work force that too often is not prepared to meet the needs of employers.  The second task is to sign up for more education.

Today, Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chairman and chief executive, is trying to reinvent the company so it can compete more deftly. Not that long ago it had to fight for business with other phone companies and cellular carriers. Then the Internet and cloud computing came along, and AT&T found itself in a tussle with a whole bunch of companies.

In an ambitious corporate education program that started about two years ago, he is offering to pay for classes (at least some of them) to help employees modernize their skills. But there’s a catch: They have to take these classes on their own time and sometimes pay for them with their own money.

To Mr. Stephenson, it should be an easy choice for most workers: Learn new skills or find your career choices are very limited.

By 2020, Mr. Stephenson hopes AT&T will be well into its transformation into a computing company that manages all sorts of digital things: phones, satellite television and huge volumes of data, all sorted through software managed in the cloud.

That can’t happen unless at least some of his work force is retrained to deal with the technology. It’s not a young group: The average tenure at AT&T is 12 years, or 22 years if you don’t count the people working in call centers. And many employees don’t have experience writing open-source software or casually analyzing terabytes of customer data.

If you don’t develop the new skills, you won’t be fired — at least AT&T won’t say as much — but you won’t have much of a future. The company isn’t too worried about people leaving, since executives estimate that eventually AT&T could get by with one-third fewer workers.

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