What Michigan can do to spur innovation in business and in workers
Last month, together with other business leaders as well as state and federal officials, I participated in an invitation-only event on creating an education system that prepares our work force for the future.
We discussed concepts and questions around our education system, both for young people, and for those who are looking at adult education as a way to change careers, or further their current careers.
My conversations that day were framed by my opening statement that “we really want a work force that has a breadth of knowledge as well as a depth of knowledge. We have to promote how knowledge is applied in diverse fields.”
My perspective on education is firmly rooted in being a business owner: What type of education is needed for a long and successful career? What do businesses look for in a successful new employee? By considering these questions, Michigan policymakers can create a strong future.
The country, and especially Michigan, seem stuck in the mode of thinking of education as a means to a job, as a vocation. The problem with this attitude is that the hot jobs change frequently. Preparing people for one job, and one job only, creates a temporary and rigid work force.
What happens to those individuals who have prepared for nursing jobs when there’s a glut of trained nurses on the job market? Do they have the necessary core knowledge to adapt to other positions in the health care field? Can they grow new skills and new responsibilities? Or, have they been trained for just one position?
Deep knowledge of nursing got them that first job. Broad knowledge will let them adapt to new responsibilities.
This emphasis on preparing people for today's hot jobs also misses many opportunities.
A few years ago, the general consensus was that there was no future in software development jobs. Those jobs were thought to be all going overseas. The need for software talent has continually risen, and the profession was recently named the Best Job of 2011 by at least one website.
If you’ve experienced any kind of career growth, or enjoyed any success you know the answer: Your education must prepare you for a long career that meets constant changes in the job market, and supports your own growth.
The only constant during a life-long career is that you’ll need to adapt. The important question for our education system: Are you prepared for all the changes that may come in the future?
Scott Adams (yes, that Scott Adams, the author of "Dilbert") put the differences very well in an article on career advice. He said if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:
1. Become the best at one specific thing. 2. Become very good (top 25 percent) at two or more things.
Very few people can be the absolute best at one thing. That space is for people like Joshua Bell, Phil Michelson, Steve Yzerman, Anders Hejlsberg or James Gosling. But anyone, with a good broad education and enough work, can reach the top 25 percent in several disciplines.
My business partner, Dianne Marsh, and I both have degrees in computer science from schools that are nationally recognized for that field. Complementing our deep technical knowledge is a broad enough education to become very good writers, public speakers and business owners.
Our deep knowledge of computer science gave us a successful start. Our broad knowledge of other disciplines enabled us to grow a successful business. Capitalism rewards those with rare skill sets. Combining skills in different disciplines gives someone a rare skill set.
Scott Adams explains how he became so successful:
"In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it."
In order to grow companies and our work force, our education system needs to prepare people for an ever-changing world. Preparing for today’s hot job is the road to irrelevance. Getting a broad, rich education that lays the foundation for becoming a triple threat is the path to a very successful career. We hire software developers that have deep knowledge of computer science and software engineering. But they must also have broad knowledge of other disciplines so that they can grow to accept new challenges as we continue to grow.
We’re trying to hire more skilled people every day. We need Michigan’s education system to lay the ground so that we have a work force full of "triple threats." It’s not enough to educate people for one job. We must educate them for lifelong successful careers. Careers that will demand diverse skills from every individual.