National Service and the Skills Gap

My first public talk on my research on the Skills Gap was to a group of 50 retired men in Palo Alto, a group called Fellowship Forum.  They meet weekly for lunch and to hear a speaker talk about a topic.  I billed my talk “an information gathering session.”  Early in my learning I didn’t want to pretend to be an expert.  So I asked them questions, show of hands throughout to test some of my inklings.  At the end probably 15 men asked questions.  A third of them them included the topic of “national service.”  For some it was part of them explaining their experience learning a hands-on skill.  For others it was part of the solution they envisioned.  Reflecting on this theme from these college educated, PME (professional-managerial elite -- to use a class definition from Joan Williams, (see: White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America)) men of Palo Alto I have stumbled upon several intersections between the Skills Gap and national service in the 21st century.

Nostalgia for National Service

For the Silent Generation (born 1925 - 1945) the remember their service in Korea or a national institute vividly.  Key impressions were:

  • The Mix: Being mixed with people of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, religious traditions, regions of the US, educational backgrounds, work experiences.  In some cases this experienced elevated their ambitions.  In others it opened their eyes to the diversity of the nation.

  • Learn by rote: Especially for those from homes with college educated parents, they experienced learning skills and disciple by rote...or even force: marching, shooting, taking care of equipment, polishing shoes.

  • Discipline by Hierarchy: The pecking order was clear and enforced.  Even the professionals (my father, a doctor) was being yelled at by Sergeants as he lay prone on the ground shooting at targets or struggling with pull ups.

  • Protected: For kids from poor and/or troubled homes, this was a safe, structured environment.  The rules were clear.  Performance was recognized. Discipline predictable.

  • GI Bill bonus: For these men, many then benefited from the GI bill for college or post-college education.

Would such a system help address the Skills Gap today?

Of course this reflection is ignoring the complexity, cost and political hurdles of implementing a system.  But as a thought experiment, here are some reasons why a program of universal national service might help address the Skills Gap.

  • Foundation Skills.  For all youth -- PME, working class, poor -- developing workplace skills and experience is valuable.  SkillsUSA calls these Personal, Workplace and Technical skills. (SkillsUSA Skills Framework). No matter what job one pursues these are useful.  And if all youth learned these at the same time, with the same vocabulary it could form a solid foundation across our economy.

  • Job Ready Skills.  It is conceivable that through, say, a two year national service job ready skills would be learned.  A “graduate” from national service would be proficient in electrical systems.  This could be equivalent to an apprenticeship that would be recognized by a civilian electrical contractor.  Or they might be proficient in medical services that would qualify them for a certificate level health care technician job.

  • Leverage Existing Training Infrastructure: The military has, already fully functioning and in place, a rigorous training system.  18 year olds are taught using a combination of book, classroom, on-line simulation, hand on materials and pedagogy important practical skills -- from diesel engine repair to operating guns to supply logistics.  As a nation we could deliver these to a much larger population of our youth.

Mix vs. Sort: Our citizens are sorted.  Over the past generation most Americans have gravitated to tribes of common-thinking citizens.  Where we live, our religious beliefs and communities, what news and information we absorb.  This sort is on top of socioeconomic levels, political affiliations...much less sports team loyalties.  Universal national service would force all young people out of their bubbles -- into a mixing bowl.  This alone, might be beneficial if it plays even a small role in shaking up the rigid status quo.  By forcing different perspectives to rub off on each other we may, over time, break through to more respect for Americans from other “tribes.”  And this might lead to bridges of understanding, new ideas and positive progress.

Skills Gap, Class in America, Vocational Education


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