Sunday, November 10, 2013

Get a Job, You Bum!

What the crow said

When it comes to governance in a democracy, conservatism makes an excellent opposition; allow conservatism to take charge, however, and the clean up takes years of tedious commitment.” - the crow

Having been an adult educator for a dozen or so years, my ears perk up when I hear announcements relating to that field. Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney met with the provinces and territories this week to sell a new plan for preparing the unemployed for the job market. I didn't get the details, but it apparently involves reducing the grants for this purpose to provinces and spending the difference on a joint training program involving industry. There's a logic to it; if Widgets, Inc. needs people to function on the Widget assembly line, they should probably bear some of the burden of training people to do that. Chalk it up to cost of production and raise your prices to cover the new expense.

The provinces and territories, as would be expected, balked on jurisdictional and budgetary grounds. 'Twas ever thus.

The concept of job training as a solution for the marginalized, the chronically unemployed and the ethnically marginalized needs a bit of sober second thought however. In the first place, there's a huge area of employment that may be short of workers but where skills training is not relevant. How much training does it need to teach Widget assembly? What able-bodied person can't nail down asphalt shingles day after day with just an hour of instruction and demonstration? There may me a myth afloat out there about skills training as a solution for employers who have only mind-numbing, thankless, routine, minimum-wage jobs to offer, but that remains a myth.

Secondly, a job does not a life make. Seen from the skills training perspective, people become widget-like in the public eye. “Get a job, you bum,” and all that. Never mind that training has been attempting to displace education in these times, the idea that a job is the relevant goal of all those years spent in school strikes me as penny wisdom and pound foolishness. Most of the people I counselled as an educator did not lack the ability to do the jobs that were out there, they were short on knowing how to live. Their lives were too chaotic for the consistent performance of even the most basic of life necessaries like managing relationships satisfactorily, postponing rewards for a distant goal, the minutiae that goes into successful child rearing, eating and feeding families with wholesome nourishment, etc. Most of my adult students had had jobs, many jobs in many cases, but chaos had undone them long before the prospect of advancement could be contemplated.

Two good ways to spend the billions we're currently throwing away on shadows:

First, employers have to be trained to make their workplaces amenable to family and social life of the people they employ. I could work at McDonald’s if the fact of being with the people there were something to look forward to, if the work were balanced with reasonable monetary and personal rewards and if the atmosphere was one of people performing a worthwhile service for deserving customers.

Second, training must never displace education. It starts in Kindergarten and never stops. It is the nurturing of the essences of being successful human beings, creatures who love, eat, travel, play, vote, hear and express opinions, read and understand, pursue artistic endeavours, and generally feel comfortable and self-confident in the communities in which fate has placed them. This is liberal education; it has no substitute.

To expropriate a Biblical adage—possibly ill-advisidly—seek ye first [a liberal education] and all these things—including meaningful work—shall be added unto you.

The idea that jobs build lives is very much a conservative way of thinking. Our current government is interested in labour supply and reducing public spending, the unemployed shall assemble Widgets as they themselves are widgets of the economy.

How long will it take a future government to undo this folly?

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