Why Life-long Learning?

A skills and knowledge gap is keeping unemployment high.

UPDATE: This New York Times article titled, "Skills Don't Pay the Bills" at first blush seems to be painting a position opposite of my post, saying that American employers have lowered wages so low that it doesn't matter what skills you have, workers can't afford to work for them. However, if you read to the last line of the article, you'll see the conclusion is the same: we need to get better at learning at all ages and levels -- fast -- if the USA wants to stay a world-player in the 21st century.

We've all heard the mantra of "jobs, jobs, jobs." We hear the stories of companies they receiving hundreds of resumes for every job opening advertised. This naturally creates the idea that jobs are scarce out there.

But did you know that there are presently 3.6 MILLION job openings in America right now? (As of the last day of September, 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Job Openings and Labor Turnover Report, Nov 6, 2012.) And that number has remained unchanged since August.

New York Times: Number of Jobs Available Rises to a Four-year High

October unemployment numbers put the count of unemployed persons at 12.3 million (7.9% unemployment). So we've got 12.3 million people looking for work, and 3.6 million job openings. So why don't more people have jobs? There are many factors that go into this, of course: wages and location and other things.

One big factor I see is a skills gap. It isn't that people aren't applying for jobs, it's that companies aren't hiring the applicants. Out of the those hundreds of resumes received for every job opening, the companies are not finding any candidates with the skill sets desired for the job. A person laid-off from a 20th-century company that went out of business, collapsed, merged -- or whatever -- usually doesn't have the skill set that is needed for 21st-century work. On the other side, companies are scrambling for cash right now; they believe that they don't have the time or money to be training people right now. They would (obviously) prefer leave the job open and save on the salary expenses than have to pay-to-train someone.

We are playing catch-up in getting our workforce educated and skilled for 21st-century business. The hardline is, if you aren't willing to put the time and effort in to learn new skills and knowledge for this new era, then your options are becoming limited... and shall be even more limited as time goes on. The sea-change here is that this is not about going back to school or getting another degree. Rather, this is about life-long learning: building skills and knowledge in a self-guided way every week. From now on.

o - o - o

There was an unstated rule of how-things-worked in the 20th-century. The idea was that you got a particular level of education - say, for example, a college degree - and then you were competent to work at a particular level of tasks.

It was educate-once model. You didn't need more education once you had a college degree. You knew enough at that point to be valuable to the market. So, the common life styles, working styles, and educational systems were all geared to fit that model.

That is no longer an effective model. With the new technologies, new market, new economy, rapid advances being made in every industry, and with the vast amounts of information and knowledge being created every year, an educate-once approach isn't going to keep up. Currently, it seems even new college grads are having a rough time somehow fitting into one of those 3.6 million jobs currently available.

The educate-once model and lifestyle is just not going to work in the new business landscape.

The new lifelong-learning model now extends past the old model both directions: we can have students doing real information-age work in order to best learn how, and for the information worker, the learning and education never stops. For those that mastered their job skills in the 20th century, this can seem like an exhausting prospect. It does take some getting used to, certainly. Yet there is little choice: new systems and major advances are coming so rapidly now that you must work to keep up, and keep up to work.

Make a commitment to life-long learning. Try out the free online courses from Princeton, Stanford, MIT and others. Begin developing your self-guided learning skills: selecting what you want to learn, figuring out how to learn it, and the discipline to stay with it until you know what you needed to know. Join up with some friends or co-workers to go on learning courses together. Find a community that supports your lifelong learning. The new, free tools online for learning are the best we've ever had in the history of the world: you have advantages that no human in the past has ever had. Go see what they can do for you.

What could we be doing to help bring America's 21st-century skill set up to par quickly, including your own skills? Leave a comment with your thoughts.