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Monday, June 6, 2011

The flexible future

As graduation day grows ever closer for many of the young women I have come to know in my small community in the past few years I am wondering what their futures hold. I have gotten caught up in the excitement of university acceptances and moving plans; not so much in prom and graduation as I was never a fan of either of those things. As I talk to some very accomplished soon to be graduates I wonder how they will fair in a bigger pond and wonder if the big and frequently asked question of What are you going to be? is the wrong one.

Many students have an answer to that question: environmental sciences, veterinary medicine, social work etc. But in the end it may be those students who have yet to define a path for themselves that may be best prepared for their future. If the future is anything it is uncertain. The students who head off to university with a life and education plan may soon find out that the rest of the world isn't conspiring with them to fulfill their dreams and ambitions. Or perhaps, when they get to university they will be introduced to new possibilities that were outside of their sphere of knowledge before that point. They might find a new intellectual love. It would be a shame for a student to stick with mathematics when biochemical engineering started to tickle their fancy just for the sake of sticking with the plan.

These days everyone is talking about jobs, employability, and marketability. Not so long ago a university education was used as a key to the world not to the boardroom. It was once said that university was a place to explore knowledge; jobs weren't really part of the equation except to say that people who had opened their minds and learned to think for themselves often got jobs because during the course of their university journey they mastered some employable skills like time management, team work, independent study, research techniques, and critical thinking.

Of course there have always been university careers that would carry one through to a profession; doctoring, lawyering or teaching but for the most part a degree in Biology could lead anywhere. It's the streamlining and mercenary intent of university applicants and graduates that has, in my opinion, ill prepared the most recent generation when entering the workforce. They have been lead to believe that they need a plan and a chosen career path by the time they are in Grade nine so they can choose the appropriate course to get the degree that will get them the job.

In today's economic climate, more often then not, they won't get the job. Then what will they do? They are educated for no other career and have been filled with the false expectation that they will get what they want if they follow this carefully constructed plan.

I believe that an education is necessary but I decry specialization noting that some people need to specialize; we need the engineer who constructs bridges, the neurologist and many others. In general, a broad education may stand our students in greater stead than the current trend of focusing on the financial possibilities of one course of study over another.

It is flexibility, versatility and the ability to learn new things at any point in one's life that will ensure a lifetime of employment. It is said, and has been the norm for most people in my generation, that the generations following the boomers will go through several drastic career changes within a lifetime. Convincing students that they need to decide their careers for the rest of their lives in the last three years of high school is not only inane it is ill-informed and irresponsible.

I graduated from high school 20 years ago and the career and university counseling that I received at that time was woefully inadequate and completely misinformed first as to what I was capable of and second in respect to the career possibilities that I might encounter.

The first mistake was to think in a Nova Scotian context. I, like so many others from this area, have traveled, worked and settled overseas. The possibilities for employment in other countries is not something these students, I am willing to bet, have even thought about. For the graduate interested in environmental studies-has anyone informed her of the possibility of working internationally with NGO's or the United Nations? For the graduate aspiring to become a vet- does she know there is an agency similar to doctors without borders that is for veterinarians? Maybe.

My education has been broad and diverse from anthropology to bio-mechanics; my work life has been no less so. Many jobs I have had came as a result of being flexible and my ability to take on challenges and learn new things. I started teaching after my first degree, in anthropology not education, and was lucky enough to learn on the job from some great teachers who were my co-workers.

I started working as a freelance journalist due to my life long passion for words and writing that lead me to the Bangkok Women Writers Group. It was with their support and confidence in my work that I dared to submit my writing for publication. I've never studied journalism; I learned the trade on the job. A Masters degree in Thai Studies did help me develop the skills necessary to be a journalist but I pursued that educational goal for it's own sake. Whenever asked why I was taking Thai studies I would reply honestly that I was doing it for fun. It seems that all that education, that experience is paying off- without having had a plan.

I do agree that an outline for ones educational and career goals may be beneficial but only if flexibility is a built in component. Some people manage to study for one job, find that job, and work at it until retirement but those people are scarce on the ground. For the graduates of 2011 I wish them luck and hope that they learn to live with uncertainty and count flexibility as a virtue.

More on this topic -
The Young & The Jobless
There are lots of ways to measure unemployment, but one statistics stands out: There are 200,000 fewer young people ... that is, those aged 15 to 24 ... 200,000 fewer of them working today than there were two years ago.
With the university year wrapped up and the high school year ending and a new group of young people marching towards the job market, our project Shift on demographic change is looking to see where they fit in.
The CBC's Neil Sandell went to something called the National Job Fair and Training Expo in Toronto where he met young people anxious to start careers. His documentary is called The Young and The Jobless.

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