August 12, 2014

Cherry Condition: College, Career, Life Skills, And Schools

By Bellwether

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is13-1338844622-15037In July Bellwether’s partner team spent a week in upstate Michigan on Old Mission Peninsula. It’s a lovely place in the summer. Warm but not too hot and cool in the evenings. Surrounded on three sides by Caribbean-hued water that’s gentle for children and inviting for adults. And it’s especially lovely when the cherry harvest is happening because the landscape is dotted with cherries of differing hues across rolling hills.  The retreat was a productive and energizing blend of work and play and included some time on the cherry farm where one of our partners grew up.

In my experience old farms tell stories through their history, status quo, and their people. This one told a few stories about agriculture today, how it’s evolving, and the challenges facing family farms. But it also told education stories. One of those is an obvious one. Where once a crew of 100 picked cherries during the harvest, a team of five can do the work now. The farm isn’t shrinking but automation has revolutionized the harvest. The cherry trees are literally shaken by machines that free the cherries to fall into collectors for processing. Fast and efficient. Because most cherries are used in applications like yogurt, fills, or dyes bruising is not an issue. Only fruit sold for retail is picked by hand.

The second story is more complicated: Finding those five people.  The work is hard, the days long, and the machines take a trained hand to operate effectively and without damaging trees, wasting fruit, or hurting someone. It’s not high-skilled work. The farmer handles the big high-stakes decisions that set the harvest up for success or failure early in the season. What he needs in his workers, he told me, are people who can show up on time, in a condition ready and prepared to work, and who can take direction, learn, and function as part of a fast-moving team. In a state with official unemployment at 7.4 percent and actual unemployment much higher you’d think finding them wouldn’t be a problem. But it is.

With the obvious caveat that our schools need to be a lot better overall and especially for persistently under-served populations, I groan when I hear business leaders bemoan the training they have to do for employees and blame the public schools for it. In my view it’s not the job of the schools to prepare students for business, it’s to prepare them for life as an educated person.  Yet what that farmer was talking about was not discreet skills that employers should be prepared to teach or that students and workers can learn through specialized training. Rather, it’s closer to what was once quaintly called deportment.  Or it’s life skills or “mega skills” that the late Dorothy Rich championed. Put more plainly it’s ‘how you do things the right way.’ Whatever you want to call it, it’s a set of attributes that people once were introduced to in school, through apprenticeships or unions, in the armed forces, or most often through their families. Participation in all of those institutions, except school, is down in terms of percent of the population involved. That has consequences.

The issue is remerging in the policy and education world through a debate about schools like KIPP and ideas like “grit.” But that is only one aspect and discussion about it is predictably politicized and unproductive with ridiculous caricatures. The debate about college versus careers, meanwhile, obscures these issues because (not unlike the education levels one needs for both) these skills are largely universal paths to self-sufficiency regardless of the vocation or educational path one chooses. It’s also not an issue linked to class or education level. Plenty of affluent college-educated young people struggle with the routines of work as well.

I don’t have a clear answer here except that I hear this kind of complaint a lot, from trades people, builders, and farmers like this one, when the subject of education and employment comes up. I hear it from colleagues in professional services work as well. There is something to it. When people in the trades say career or college ready they’re not talking about ability with textual analysis or proficiency at math (both important skills) but rather something more basic and lacking for a lot of Americans. Shouldn’t we talk more frankly about it in the education context because these days, if not schools, who?

*Photo courtesy of

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