(March 4, 2020) There is a lot of talk in Richmond and Washington, D.C. these days about the need for a skilled workforce. Without a doubt, there are gaps in trades and professions that must be filled if we are to build a good future for ourselves and for our children, and must be filled if our country is to be a global economic leader.
To hear some of the discussion, what we need to do is simply to train young people for specific high-demand jobs. In fact, a national campaign is underway, led by the Ad Council, in close association with IBM, Apple and the White House, to promote this very idea and to encourage alternatives to college. We have statewide incentives to fund workforce development, which very often means programs that teach specific skills to match the needs of industry at the present moment.
This is important. However, a skilled workforce is not the same as a prepared workforce.
In all the clamor for skills training something is missing, and that something is a demand that colleges of all types prepare students to be responsible citizens. Women and men who are informed, involved, who act with civility, humanity and who care about the future, they are crucial for the health of our country. Although education may be preparation for good work, it is so much more.
And yet, nearly every day I hear someone questioning or dismissing the value of education (even from among some talking heads who have Ivy League degrees!). It is true, of course, that one can make a living without going to college, although an average college graduate will earn $1 million more in his or her career than an average high school graduate. And yes, $1.5 trillion in student loan debt is too much; however, very few folks seem concerned about the overall amount of consumer debt, which is nine times higher and often leaves us little to show for it.
At the end of the day, if we do not take care of our democracy then having a robust economy is meaningless. Who benefits, after all, if many of our skilled workforce are denied an opportunity to learn about our history and about the ideals that gave rise to this great nation? Who benefits if only a handful of areas of study pay attention to preparing citizens? Who wins if we reject the importance of education that forms such people?
For the benefit of us all, our society needs as many people as possible who can think critically and ask questions, who understand where we came from, and who care about how a free nation should act in order to remain free.
This is why one of the goals of our strategic plan at Ferrum College is to “prepare citizens committed to integrity and service.” It’s because citizenship is the work of us all, and not the work of a few. Every one of our faculty, staff, and students can tell you that we are serious about our motto, “Not Self, But Others,” and that we believe it teaches us how we ought to live.
So, let’s build a strong workforce. Let’s provide women and men the skills necessary to build good lives and a strong economy. And, let’s be sure that our skilled workforce is also a prepared workforce, ready to live free and ready to live as responsible citizens.
This column by President David Johns appeared in The Roanoke Times and The Franklin News-Post. President Johns may be reached at email@example.com.