The false dichotomy between job training and education

Peter Huidekoper, Jr. is a long-time Denver educator, who publishes an always provocative newsletter called “Another View.” The newsletter is widely distributed among education thinkers in the Denver metro area.

Huidekoper has a sharp mind and a deft touch with words. In a recent recent newsletter, he takes on an issue with national implications: The purpose of higher education, and community colleges in particular. Do they exist to educate or to train?

Huidekoper argues the mission of community colleges is to educate, but that they succumbed to pressure for government and industry to become little more than glorified training centers.

I’ll argue below that drawing a bright line between education and training no longer makes sense; that they are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.

Although Huidekoper focuses his arguments on Colorado, these conversations are occurring across the country as policymakers and education advocates debate the mission of education in this dawning Age of Agility.

People in the Huidekoper camp criticize state government, business, and the community college system for what they see as a warping of the community college mission of education.

Their argument, in a nutshell, is that community colleges have been turned over lock, stock, and barrel to industry to do what businesses should be doing: training workers to meet employment needs.

It’s a provocative polemic, but in some ways it misses the mark. There is nothing inherently wrong with community colleges being in part training centers for the careers of today and tomorrow. In fact, it’s an essential role they are playing to help people of all ages prepare for the future of work.

I’d like to think the community colleges can do both: provide the training students need to be employable, and provide an education that also makes them better workers, and citizens.

In fact, in this Age of Agility, the best training is education, and vice-versa. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, here’s a quick synopsis of the “community-colleges-have-veered-off-mission” arguments.

First, business is steering community college education to meet its needs exclusively, rather than acknowledging and actively supporting its broader educative mission. In succumbing to business pressure, the argument goes, community colleges veer sharply away from their stated mission.

In Colorado, for example, the state community college mission is, in part, “to provide an accessible, responsive learning environment that facilitates the achievement of educational, professional and personal goals by our students.”

Second, even if community colleges wanted to stay true to their mission, they would be overwhelmed by the firepower of industry and state. The deck is stacked against them, the argument goes, because powerful governmental and business interests wield far more clout in the halls of Congress and state legislatures than does the community college system.

After reading Huidekoper’s piece, I was left feeling that, as with so many issues these days, the chasm is widening between those on either side of the community college question. Yet upon closer examination, there is a great deal of common ground, if only we’d stop shouting for a moment and listen to one another.

If you read the Age of Agility report I co-authored (and you really should), you’ll find, among many other things, a compelling case for education, training—whatever you care to call it—that goes far beyond providing students with just the technical expertise they need to perform certain tasks.

If that’s all our education system did, then almost everyone would be out of a job by 2030. The pace at which automation and artificial intelligence are advancing is stunning. Unless we retool education so that it hones those attributes that make the human brain inherently impossible to replicate, we’ll be doing everyone a massive disservice.

There isn’t room here to go into detail about what that looks like. Read the report. But here’s the bottom line: Yes, people need technical skills, and industry needs workers who have these skills.  But more important, people who want to be employable—and don’t we all?—need to learn how to deeply analyze problems, using the quirky human mind to tease out connections and synergies that aren’t immediately evident.

They need to think critically, always asking tough questions and pushing for better answers. And they need to be comfortable in their bones working in diverse teams. They need long-term exposure to the marketplace of ideas, where people from vastly different backgrounds bring different perspectives to debates. This leads to better, more creative decisions and innovations.

Some of that sounds a lot like a liberal arts education, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s where we need to land in this debate. Any education or training program must help students develop practical, hands-on skills as well as the habits of mind that will keep them ahead of the machines.

Our future depends upon both.

Alan Gottlieb is a veteran Colorado journalist who has covered education at the Denver Post and as the former editor and co-founder of EdNews Colorado and Chalkbeat. He’s currently a freelance writer, editor, and communications consultant at Write. Edit. Think.


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