Pondering the future of work and the role of higher education

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My spring classes have begun at the University of Massachusetts and I’ve been thinking a lot about my responsibility as an educator to help the graduating students in our program find good work.

Our Sustainable Food and Farming major in the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture has grown significantly over the past 10 years (from just 5 students in 2003 to almost 100 today).  While this doesn’t make it a large program at UMass, it makes it one of the largest sustainable agriculture programs in the U.S.

This dramatic increase in interest in sustainable food and farming education is being driven by “external” forces like the a growing local food culture coupled with a depressed national economy, as well as “internal” forces like the passion and commitment young people have to find real and meaningful work.

While most of my colleagues have celebrated this rapid growth in our program, a few have raise the concern that this many students may not be able to find well-paying jobs upon graduation.  As their adviser, I take this concern seriously and try to point students  toward good opportunities in the working world.  Perhaps just as important however, I encourage them to reflect upon the difference between “finding a job” and pursing their “calling.”

Good Work

As Matthew Fox points out in his book “The Reinvention of Work“, there is a big difference between a  “job” and “good work.”  The great British economist, E.F. Schumacher (most famous for his 1973 landmark book Small is Beautiful), wrote a less-known book called Good Work about this topic. According to Schumacher, good work should...

  1.     …provide the worker with a living (food, clothing, housing)
  2.     …enable the worker to perfect their natural gifts & abilities
  3.     …allow the worker to serve and work with other people

A “job” can “provide a living (food, clothing, housing)” but good work is needed for us to be fully human.  In an interview, Matthew Fox stated “a job is something we do to get a paycheck and pay our bills. Jobs are legitimate, at times, but work is why we are here in the universe. Work is something we feel called to do, it is that which speaks to our hearts in terms of joy and commitment.

Those of us for whom our job is also our calling might celebrate Robert Frost’s words in Two Tramps in Mudtime:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.

How many us can claim that our avocation (that which we love) and our vocation (that which “pays the bills”) are truly as two eyes made one in sight?

Asking the Right Questions about Work

As important as finding a job is after college, it also seems to me that the emphasis on preparing students for a job results in an impoverished understanding of a college education.  At a recent “majors fair” I was saddened by the number of students whose first question to me was “so how much money will I make when I graduate from this major?”  Wrong question!  While a job and salary are obviously important it should not be the first question a student asks about a potential career.

Matthew Fox reminds us that everyone of us has a calling and he explores several questions that may help us discover the reason we are here on this earth at this time.  He asks us to consider these questions:

What are our talents? What is the pain in the world that speaks to us that we want to respond to? What gifts do we have, whether material goods or power to influence? What gifts do we have to make a difference? We are all living under this sword of the collapse of the ecosystem and what are we doing about it? Are we planting trees, are we working in the media to awaken consciousness, are we working to preserve the species that are disappearing or the soil or the forests? Are we cutting back on our addiction to meat, changing our eating habits, using less land, water and grain for our eating habits? Are we being responsible, and how does it come through in our work and in our job?

Of course, I can see some of my colleagues roll their eyes as they recite their job-focused mantra “yes, but it won’t matter if they can’t find a job! 

Okay, so lets think about the jobs of the future?  What will they look like?  And what can we do to help prepare students for a job?

The Future of Work

The “smart” people tell us that the world is changing fast in response to advances in technology and continuing commoditization of work, resulting in an ever growing gulf between the “haves and the have-nots.”  Futurist Ross Dawson reminds us that …unless your skills are world-class, you are a commodity.”  And the trend for the price of a commodity (including labor) is inexorably downward. Salaries of the highest wage earners continue to rise while those of the lowest continue to fall.

Among the industrial nations, the disparity between the salaries of upper management and workers is particularly onerous in the U.S.  Even a college education may not be enough to provide a graduate with financial security in a society of growing inequity.  Preparing students for an entry level job, without helping them also discover their calling and learn how to adjust and adapt to a rapidly changing world, simply prepares young people for being a commodity.  We owe it to our students to do more than prepare them for being “cogs in a corporate machine.”

As depressing as this may sound, Dawson and other futurists project even more challenging times ahead.  We need to ask ourselves, in these tenuous times how do university educators help prepare students to be successful in a new and largely unpredictable world?

A Few Suggestions

1. Well the first thing we need to do is to define success in more than financial terms.  Living simply, being useful to others, being part of a healthy family and community MUST be valued as legitimate forms of success.

2. Next, students (and others) need clarify their personal calling (the confluence of a vocation and an avocation).  If jobs are not secure, preparing for a job (even a well-paying job) that may exist today and be gone tomorrow is a bad plan.

3. Developing practical skills (like being able to fix a small engine, grow food, build a bike-carrier, graft a fruit tree, find relevant information on a smart phone or tablet, build a solar oven, or make a cup from clay), community-building skills (like knowing how to build coalitions of people who hold common values to work together), and system thinking skills (like knowing how to uncover root causes and shift the structure of complex systems), might be the most useful prerequisites for success in a rapidly changing world.

4. Finally, everyone must learn to learn how to learn so they are ready to adapt to rapidly changing conditions. Too much of higher education is about remembering facts.  Students graduate college with the dual skills of knowing how to take tests and how to write term papers, skills that are valued no where outside the university.  Demonstrating they are “smart” (by getting good grades) is less important when many of the facts they have memorized for their exams are easily accessible on their smart phones. Blooms hierarchy of learning (below_ reminds us that “remembering” is the low end of learning.

Education for the future

The Sustainable Food and Farming major in the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture encourages students to explore experiential learning opportunities on farms, in markets and cooperative stores, non-profit advocacy organizations, and teaching situations while in college.

In addition, there are many opportunities such as the UMass Real Food Challenge to earn college credit by working with other students to gain real-world experience while earning a Bachelor of Sciences degree in our program.

Education for the future needs to be less focused on memorizing facts and more on applying those facts to solve problems.  Information is relevant but if necessary facts can be looked up on a smart phone, it is not worthy of higher education.

Education for the future needs to be more experiential, giving students the opportunity to “create, evaluate, and analyze” in real world situations.  A university education should be a practice field where it is safe to “fail.”  Students should be put into situations where they can learn how to learn how to learn so they are ready to adapt to a rapidly world.

Anything less is a failure of imagination.

ENDNOTE:  I”m curious to learn about your own experience of higher education.  Have you had the opportunity to “practice” in a real world situation while in college?  Please share your stories in the comments box below.

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See “Sustainability and Higher Education” for more essays on related topics.  See the  Sustainable Food and Farming program at the University of Massachusetts for information on our Bachelor of Sciences degree.

 

We must choose either “cheap” food or a better quality of life (for all)

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Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was tying grape vines at a farm in Central California, when the temperature soared well above 95 degrees. Only a few days in the country, this undocumented field worker, who didn’t have easy access to water, shade or the work breaks required by law, passed out from the heat and died two days later. (More).

Maria was 17 years old. The Center for Disease Control reports that heat-related deaths of farm workers are on the rise in the U.S. This deadly trend is unfortunately one of the costs of cheap food.

Our industrialized food system consisting of mega-farms, long-distance shipping and big box-stores has driven down the retail price of food to the point that Americans, on average, expend about 9 percent of their annual income on food. The industrial food system in the U.S. produces relatively “cheap” food, but at a cost. Fortunately, in some parts of the U.S., we can partially opt out of this exploitative and costly system.

In the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, where I live, the locally grown vegetables are generally of higher quality than anything shipped from a distance.  We can enjoy the freshness and flavor of the food available at our local farmers’ markets, farm stands, food coops and some regional supermarkets. Yet most experts agree that less than 10 percent of the produce purchased in our region is grown locally.

I suspect the reason that 90 percent of the consumers in my (fairly progressive) region of the country don’t regularly buy local food is due to its perceived higher price and the convenience of shopping at major supermarkets.

atlstoreBusy people treat food shopping as just another task, rather than a pleasurable social experience.  Studies indicate that we have 10 times more conversations when we shop at the farmers’ market than at the supermarket.  I know when I stop in at the new All Things Local Cooperative Market in downtown Amherst, I always bump into friends and neighbors.

Shopping locally isn’t an “efficient” use of time in my task-driven life – which is one of the reasons I make the effort slow down and shop at the farmers market or local coop.  For me, buying locally is an investment in a higher quality of life (for all).

Some regional supermarkets do try to offer local products. The Big Y in Western Massachusetts, for example, is a family-owned business and a major supporter of the UMass Student Farm, which grows organic vegetables for sale locally. When we do choose to shop at supermarkets, we can support local farmers by asking specifically for locally grown products.

And what about price? How often have we heard the statement that local food costs more?

Certainly, local beef, pork and chicken cost more than meat raised in a factory farm. You just can’t beat the efficiency and scale of the industrial animal factory for low price. The fact that local meat products are generally produced with less stress on the animals may not be worth the higher price to some of us. Of course, if we were concerned about our own health, the health of our community and the health of the environment, we might choose to eat less meat altogether and when we do we can buy local. This would be an investment in a higher quality of life for ourselves, for local farm families, and for the animals we consume.

On the other hand, there is little difference in price between local and shipped vegetables, especially during our growing season.

But “cost” includes more than “price.” The industrial food system that produces cheap food does so at the expense of the workers in the food system, on farms, in factories, shipping terminals, big box-stores, and the fast-food restaurants serving the food. These workers earn near minimum wage. A federal minimum wage law that leaves families in poverty is part of the cost of cheap food.  Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez’s death is also part of the cost of cheap food.

When we consider the quality of life we enjoy in those regions like my own where local food is plentiful, we might also wonder about the quality of life of those who are working to produce, ship and sell cheap food. When we buy food shipped from long distances, we say “yes” to an exploitative system designed primarily to maximize financial returns of corporate shareholders – at the expense of others.

It is true that relocalization of the food system may result in higher (but fairer) food prices overall. At the same time buying local food will create local jobs and build community.

When you buy your food locally you are making an investment in a higher quality of life (for all).  I think this is an investment we can’t afford not to make.

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Please check out my Just Food Now Resource Page and see our Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences program at the University of Massachusetts.  Go here for more of my World.edu posts.

NOTE: this post  was adapted from an editorial I wrote for the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project and was posted originally here.