Job Experience Is The Best Job Training: An Education Reform Agenda On Student Debt, Automated Job Loss and Meaningful Work

For more than a millennium, humans have accomplished extraordinary strides in technological advancement and successfully trained each new generation for jobs that they could never have imagined. And yet, despite this unbroken track record, a lot of people are freaking out about whether this will be the last economic generation to prosper from meaningful work.

Today, I’m releasing an early draft series of historical and economic reports showing that not only is the same strategy humans have used for thousands of years still a viable way of overcoming two of the greatest economic challenges, student debt and automated job displacement, but that we’ve been getting better at solving the workforce training problem over time, portending a better future of work than ever before.

My argument is simple: we need fewer hours and more jobs. We should reform labor and welfare programs so that people are neither full time students nor do they devote all 40 hours a week to a single employer. An economy where people work fewer hours per week, but diversify their skills through direct job experience is better suited to modern work. Our economy thrives on creativity and novelty, not monotony. People are working too much and learning too little.

I think the data is quite compelling that countries with the smallest student debt have robust college apprenticeship programs, while the recession’s most resilient industries encourage self-employment and holding more than one (skilled) job.

What is fascinating is that apprenticeship and multiple job holding were the norm for thousands of years and probably would have continued unabated had the economy not encountered a strange technological blip in the early 20th century: the industrial factory.

“From the introduction of the first labor-saving machine dates the decline of the apprentice,” hailed a report from the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor in 1907.

Quoting a German diplomat after his visit to St. Louis,

“In America a young man has much less opportunity than in Germany to learn in a practical way all of the details of a trade and thus become a skilled workman in a thorough sense of the term. This is largely due to a difference of systems the general tendency in the United States being to reduce prices by almost entirely substituting machinery for hand work” [Emphasis added].

Industrial automation decimated the corner store, farmers-market-style entrepreneurship that had sustained the middle-class, packing people into mega-corporations. Up until then, the idea of extended, exclusive work for a single person was a legal policy pushed by the British Crown after the Black Plague in order to stifle competitive salaries from the remaining peasants.

600 hundred years later, most people could no longer afford the massive investment in capital necessary to do factory jobs; so, rather than fight for more mobility, workers started to fight for benefits and predictability.

In large industrial factories, unscrupulous employers began to exploit apprentices as mere low-wage workers, so labor unions and executives teamed up with the Ivy League to funnel most of the population through government-subsidized schools — not because experts at the time thought school was better for workforce training, but because they could not agree on how much to pay workers-in-training.

This is how America went from multiple-job-holding and apprenticeship to full-time college, single-employership, and job retraining programs that resemble schools. Anxiety about the future of work is exaggerated by the well-intentioned, but antiquated welfare policies that are tethering cultural expectations to a fading industrial economy.

I think it is entirely possible to reform education and welfare policy so that new forms of 21st century labor produce a society that is more prosperous, stable, and full of creative opportunities. To be sure, right now, this type of economic lifestyle is reserved for mostly privileged cosmopolitan urbanites, but I’m confident, with the right policies, this can be the norm and rather than the exception.

Now, I have deliberately avoided putting any statistics or evidence in this post because all of the reports are in early draft form. Links to live public Google documents for comment are listed below. I am really looking forward to what people have to say, and I expect a lot of this to be revised substantially.

This series itself is also a bit of experiment in trying think-tank-style research in a more public and collaborative way. Not only do I want to give more people an opportunity to have input on potential policy, but I want them to get credit for their thoughtful ideas (if they want credit).

Links Ahoy!

  1. A history of student debt
  2. Ideas on how the gig economy can overcome automated job loss
  3. Ideas on how to solve student debt