Here’s a quick one for all the students out there who are worried about their employable skills. I often hear students ask about this or that classroom exercise with the typical question of, “yeah, am I ever going to use this on the job?” And often the honest answer is “no.” But that doesn’t mean the exercise is valueless. Sometimes I also hear students complain that the exercise they are doing, or the tool they are using, isn’t industry standard. Now there’s no good reason here to tolerate substandard education, but if you’re worried that you won’t be employable simply because you haven’t been trained to do precisely what you will need to do on the job site, under precisely the same conditions … well, have you considered what that job site is going to look like ten years from now, or twenty?
We’ve all been told that we’ll likely have several careers in our working lives. I know, we all hope that we’re going to be the exception to that trend, because even finding one career seems daunting, much less several. But even if we manage to stay in more or less the fields we start in, it’s just blind to imagine the jobs won’t evolve. My mother worked in the printing industry for a lot of years, bending over a light table mucking around with an Exacto knife and little bits of Mylar in order to create graphics for print. That job essentially doesn’t exist anymore, now that printing has gone digital. Even an office environment evolves. I know one older office worker who won’t give up her electric typewriter. Now, she can and does use a computer too, but obviously at one point she had to learn. Which brings me around to my essential point. The truest job skill is the ability to learn and to adapt.
Office software changes every several years. Do you feel comfortable with MS Office? Don’t get too comfortable. It’s been “standard” for less than ten years and there’s no guarantee it’ll stay that way. Other industries operate similarly. Things change, and sometimes they change fast. It’s the people who are willing and able to take what they already know, and apply it in new ways, often without formal training along the way, who will thrive.
That’s just something to think about, the next time you catch yourself complaining that you aren’t learning exactly what you’ll need to do on the job. Real job skills are the result of constant training and retraining – much of it self-directed. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that then that’s the real problem and you should confront it. As I said, this is not meant to be an excuse for substandard education. Especially if you are in a vocational program, and training with equipment that’s supposed to be industry standard, then sure, it should be industry standard. But don’t grumble every time some exercise or assignment or discussion takes you outside that box and implicitly asks you to stretch from what you’ve just learned to what you might do on the job. That exercise of stretching your knowledge, and the personal effort required to make useful sense of it, may be the most important thing you learn in school.