Peering down into the skillz gulch
Once upon a time our public schools prepared kids on both sides of the excellence divide for a mythical place called “the future.” Students from non-excellent-ville went on to labor in factories, while their more excellent peers went on to college and then became bosses. But then the factories closed or moved overseas and, save for a handful of hedge-fund managers, the wages of just about everyone became less excellent. Which raises a fiercely urgent question: how should our failed and failing public schools prepare students for the non-existent jobs of the 21st century?
Fortunately reader, we have an outstanding tour guide to help lead us across the mighty skillz gulch. His name is Mr. Thomas Friedman and he has helpfully prepared just the map we need to navigate our path to 21st century prosperity. Follow the following sign posts directly to career readiness and a fulfilling, financially-secure and successful career—that is if you don’t get laid off first. Let’s follow along, shall we?
Tip 1: Attend an Ivy League college and room with Friedman’s own daughter
In the past few weeks Mr. Friedman has written not one but two Sunday columns in the New York Times drawing upon the career-planning insights of his daughter’s Harvard roommate, a 20-something former McKinsey consultant who, after a brief stint McKinsey-ing, became an expert at dispensing career advice.
Tip 2: Learn who Kanye West is and start tweeting about him
OK—you weren’t excellent enough to attend an Ivy League school (so you can forget about rooming with Thomas Friedman’s daughter). But there is still hope for you, as long as you can demonstrate to your future employer that you are able to “add value.” For example:
Sample question: “Kanye West just released a new fashion collection. You can see it here. Imagine you had to write a tweet promoting this collection. What would your tweet be?”
If your answer was “I would rather throw myself into the skillz gulch than work at a job that requires tweeting about Kanye West,” it is pretty clear that you are not cut out for 21st century prosperity. In fact, I’m guessing you might be a college dropout, which, by the way, just happens to be the name of Kanye’s first album.
Tip 3: It’s not what you know, it’s how many times you use the word “entrepreneurial.”
Did you know that the most successful job candidates are “inventors and solution-finders” who are relentlessly “entrepreneurial” because they understand that many employers today don’t care about your résumé, degree or how you got your knowledge, but only what you can do and what you can continuously reinvent yourself to do?
Tip 4: Learn to Excel
So what if you already have a career but it is of the future-less variety, like teaching? Don’t worry, value subtracting friend. There is hope for you too. Take this woman from Detroit who was working as a cashier at Borders. She realized that she had no future, because Borders was going bankrupt and Detroit was on fire, so she taught herself Excel. Good news reader: the story ends happily.
“We gave her a very rigorous test, and she outscored people who had gone to Stanford and Harvard. She ended up as a top applicant for a job that, on paper, she was completely unqualified for.”
In other words, she taught herself to Excel—and you can too.
Tip 5: Be prepared to work for free
At the heart of the 21st century economy is a novel concept known as the unpaid internship. As Thomas Friedman and his daughter’s Harvard roommate explain it, the principle is as simple as it is rewarding.
Experience, rather than a degree, has become an important proxy for skill, and internships give you that experience. So grab one wherever you can, because, even if you’re just serving coffee, it is a way to see how businesses actually work and which skills are prized by employers.
As to the misguided fear that the unpaid internship will widen the income gap as the only young people who can afford to work for free are already wealthy, I say “pish posh.” With wages on the decline for almost everyone, save for the top .1%, it will only be a matter of time before we’re all working for free.
Tip 6: Don’t get laid off
What about the millions of workers who were so career ready that they actually had careers, only to get laid off when teachers and other public sector employees caused the economy to implode by failing to add enough value? Is there a way for them to retroactively blame failed and failing public schools for stifling and de-skilling them?
No employer will say this out loud for legal reasons, but if you’ve been out of work for six months or more, they won’t even look at you because they assume nobody else wanted to hire you. This is a tragedy that may need a public policy fix.
Send comments about Kanye West’s fashion line to firstname.lastname@example.org.