Deciphering the Jobs Paradox: Part II

January 17, 2012


In Part I of this blog series, I described the paradox laid out in The Economist’s special report on jobs last September. However, our interest at The Amani Institute is on the supply side of this paradox: how can we better prepare young professionals interested in the social sector with the skills they need to be competitive amongst leading employers? The Life of the Mind Belongs in the Real World as Anya Kamenetz and many others have noted, universities were never meant to become the gateway to the workforce they now are. As a result, the incentives in university structures are geared towards academic research while the vast majority of students, perhaps over 90% of them, do not go on to become academics. Universities are stuck in the unenviable position of being expected to do a job they were never meant to do in the first place. As a result, graduates interested in the social sector emerge without a realistic understanding of the problems they have trained to address. Even as they enter the professional world, diplomas in hand, they have a secret fear that they still don’t actually know how to do anything. In their wonderful book, The Heart of Higher Education, Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc put it forcefully:

 This form of education [breeds] “educated” people whose knowledge of the world is so abstract that they cannot engage the world morally: disengaged forms of learning are likely to lead toward disengaged lives. What students learn about poverty from reading texts is almost always less compelling than what they learn by doing that reading while volunteering in a community where the sights, sounds, smells of poverty are inescapable elements of the educational experience.

To develop models for “engaged learning” will require us to go beyond the tired debate of learning-for-its-own-sake versus vocational training. The ‘life of the mind’ is perfectly compatible with a sustained and real-time engagement with the problems of society. In fact, the only way to ensure that both critical thought and reflective study are relevant is to place them in the cauldron of the world around us, so that they can be strengthened by the challenges they face outside the comfort of the university halls. This is by no means a eulogy for the traditional university, which remains essential to society. We must, rather, help universities evolve so that they can play both their traditional (academic research) and newly shouldered (preparing future practitioners) roles effectively. The core question at stake, to go back again to Palmer and Zajonc, is:

How can higher education become a more multidimensional enterprise, one that draws on the full range of human capacities for knowing, teaching, and learning; that bridges the gaps between the disciplines; that forges stronger links between knowing the world and living creatively in it, in solitude and in community?

In fact, those students who are interested in a social sector career have an advantage over the traditional private sector employee. As Mr. Manyika of the McKinsey Global Institute says, in The Economist article Winners and Losers, “there are three main types of work: transformational (typically involving physical activity); transactional (routine jobs in call centers or banks); and interactional (relying on knowledge, expertise and collaboration with others). Of these three types of work, interactional work is the least likely to be affected by modern forces such as outsourcing and technology. This is why all the pundits of labor markets are encouraging future graduates to be skilled in “knowledge worker” type jobs. However, if you are interested in a social sector career, interactional jobs are all there is. Nearly every type of work in the social sector relies on high-touch human interaction, facilitation, collaboration, synthesis-making, or strategic analysis. None of these are easily outsourced or replaced by technology. Indeed, technology in these jobs typically serves only to enhance human capability, extending its reach like never before. And furthermore, as the lines between the private, public, and social sectors get fuzzier by the day, those professionals with a core social motivation behind what they do should only have increasing opportunities for meaningful and stable work in all sectors of society. The Economist report points not just to this blurring of sector boundaries but to the underlying societal shift that will magnify it. In “My Big Fat Career”, they note that “Surveys consistently find that many of today’s under-30s in rich countries want to spend their working day trying to make the world a better place as well as being properly paid, and turn down jobs that do not offer such satisfaction. Employers have cottoned on to this and now often mention a “social purpose” in their recruitment advertisements.” How, then, can future leaders and professionals in the social sector best position themselves to overcome the inherent disadvantages of their education and, in fact, take advantage of these new opportunities? That will be the subject of Part III of this series.  

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