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More to job market than meets the eye

The View from Here

A friend of mine graduated from Mississippi State in May. He’s a talented guy who finished the mechanical engineering program with a 3.8 GPA. In a couple of weeks, he’s off to Andersen Consulting in Houston.

I thought he was well on his way to accomplishing a number of professional goals he’d set rather early on in college. I found out over the weekend, that instead, he’s a bit apprehensive about what to expect in the coming months. We had a conversation about goals, dreams, what’s important and what’s not — all that heavy stuff that pops into your head when you’re out riding a dusty bike trail through the woods.

We arrived at no satisfactory conclusions; we rarely do, but we did keep talking about the current job market.

During the past month, the national media has focused on what new college graduates can expect entering the working world. Most analysts agree that with the booming economy and a shortage of qualified workers, graduates have been able to pick and choose from a slew of job opportunities.

Pretty rosy picture.

Anecdotally, evidence suggests that it’s still a competitive marketplace that demands skills, experience and impressive accomplishments to obtain a good job.

Companies that want to succeed can’t hire warm bodies to fill office space and hang out drinking coffee. They need skilled workers. And increasingly, they need skilled technical workers. Several months ago, a conference in Atlanta examined the future of workforce training.

“Finding suitably trained workers is a well-entrenched challenge. What’s just becoming clear is this: The old system of training workers doesn’t work anymore. And the numbers bear that out: Studies show fewer than half of all new workers entering the work force will be equipped for high-wage, high-skilled jobs,” said an article in the Atlanta newspaper.

To meet the challenges of the rapidly evolving global economy, speakers at the conference said that a dramatic change must occur in how people are educated in the U.S.

“There seems to be an emphasis of parents sending their children to college. That’s not where the large-paying jobs are anymore. It’s in technical trade. That’s where the jobs and money are,” Georgia Power executive Lynne Russell said. About 40% of students enrolled in Atlanta’s tech schools are college graduates, she added.

“The workplace is changing, and we need and must have new basic skills,” Joan Wills of the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington said. One solution underway is establishing uniform skills and training standards nationwide that can follow a worker from job to job.

As a graduate of a liberal arts college with a degree in history, I’m hesitant to advocate radical vocationalism for every student in America’s high schools, colleges and universities. Perhaps the best approach is a combination of the classics, literature, art, history, religion and music synergized with computer skills and information technology and management abilities. Would that provide the solid foundation of skills workers need? Or are the liberal arts a luxury we can no longer afford?

These are just a few questions we’ll have to answer in this brave, new information age.

Jim Laird is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is jlaird@msbusiness.com.

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