I Don’t Need No Education!

I Don’t Need No Education!

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Catherine Priestley on the death of practicality.

Construction workers know how to take a joke. In fact, it is probably their sense of humour that gets them through their twelve hour shifts of bridge building in forty-degree heat. Nothing really offends these people who joke about themselves and each other all day long. Nothing except when one of their mates criticises their practical ability.

In jobs where you are paid to make things, there is not a greater insult than that. Being deemed incompetent and ineffective is a liability that could affect the time and cost of the job. Yet workers in construction and other industries seem to be saying it more and more.

Discontent and frustration at the death of practicality is rumbling through our workforce. It is a rumbling that will grow louder as the pressure for microeconomic reform and higher productivity in Australian industry mounts. Many believe that university education for the masses will create the most robust workforce for the knowledge economy of the future. We are now seeing the devastating impact of such beliefs – barricading students in classrooms until their mid twenties, filling their brains full of theory (mistakenly referred to as ‘skills’) and then releasing them in to the workforce with the assumption that ‘credentialised’ equals ‘productive’.

A clear example of this problem is in the field of engineering, where the theory of maths and physics is directly applied to make something happen in the real world. A growing disconnect however, has emerged between the ‘thinkers’ and the ‘doers’, with fewer people in-between who have a sound grasp of both.

Tradesmen on the job site frequently bang heads with engineers in the office. Phone calls fly back and forth as they argue over the design plan and its execution. Tradesmen calling on years of experience tell engineers that what they have designed simply will not work or is too time consuming (and therefore too costly) to build. Engineers stare confusedly at their computer screens, saying that if it is right on the computer it should be right in the field. While this is all happening, frustration is building because the electricians, mechanics, builders and welders are not making anything and no wealth is being generated.

When you raise this issue, workers on the ground either look very annoyed or totally exhausted. This is what happens when you are constantly dealing with obstacles, often unnecessary, to get the job done. It seems that the main source of these obstacles is when the people in the office have not got a solid grasp on what happens in the construction process of the object which they are designing. Or, they lack on-the-ground experience, which is critical when working out what design will work best, under certain conditions, for a certain price. It is this lack of practicality that leads to poor decisions and frustrated workers.

The examples of this are endless. We met one bloke in the field who is a welder by trade. He says he and his work mates often change designs they have been given because they are ridiculously complicated to construct. Once, he had to change a design because the tools that would have been required to construct it did not actually exist yet. Another, thinks that actually building the designs yourself and acquiring hands-on skills with metal gives you an innate sense of what works and what does not. ‘Common sense,’ he likes to call it.

The same friction exists in the telecommunications industry. The experienced technician we spoke to told us that the best employers he had had worked for were engineers who had been tradesmen as well; they had the theory down pat but also the practical elements. Having people like that running the show allows the workers to do their job with minimum waste and cost, instead of stopping every five minutes because the design has a flaw.

In civil engineering, experience trumps anything else. The Roads and Maritime Service is full of people who have built countless roads and are confident to make the best decisions for the safety, longevity and aesthetics of the road, even when they differ from the planned design. However, they are often over-ruled by younger engineers who will not build differently to the plan because they lack confidence in their own theory-centred skillset. According to an experienced roads supervisor, this approach is not good at all. He also noted that real engineering happens on the ground, where decisions are made to best suit the conditions of the job.

That’s the problem though. Making good decisions, thinking on your feet, applying your knowledge to real life situations requires experience and common sense. It requires practicality. But people across all industries are saying the same thing; practicality, once a thing is possessed by the masses, it is in decline.

What has happened? Why is practicality dying out when it is so important in a wealth creating work force? Much of the blame must sit with the education system and our ever-increasing reliance on it. Higher education was greatly expanded by Menzies in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The massive social experiment was undertaken on the advice of Sir Keith Murray, who said that 16 per cent of the population had the intellectual ability to succeed at university. Up until then, expanding the mind through higher education institutions was viewed with suspicion. In his book The Lucky Culture, Nick Cater says that ‘the preoccupations of pioneering life allowed little time for abstract thought.’ Australian workers were solving their own problems just fine. Practicality combined with self-reliance and a determination to produce things led to a full exploitation of human capital. Common sense was the most important asset for Australians in the nineteenth century, and it was self-taught.

Oh, how things have changed. Whitlam’s expansion of higher education was intended to be for the public good, to raise living standards and serve the community. It led to the rise of what Cater calls the Knowledge Class, ‘a cohort of tertiary-educated professionals with a particular outlook that sets them apart from their fellow citizens.’ The growth of this class has been rapid. In 2012, a quarter of working age Australians had degrees. In 2008, Labor set a target which required 40 percent of 25-40 year olds to have at least a bachelor’s degree by 2020.

While on the outset these large figures can seem an improvement, make no mistake that they have come at a cost. The truth is we keep students in classrooms for far too long, delaying adulthood and shielding them from life experience. It also encourages students to look to others for knowledge, to pay institutions to skill them, rather than being self-reliant and teaching themselves as they go along.

Either Murray’s figure of 16 per cent was incorrect, or we are unnecessarily promoting higher education for the masses. This costs the taxpayer but more than that, it costs young people valuable time that they could be spending gaining wealth generating skills in the workforce.

Universities are facing an existential crisis. Their historical purpose has been to further the mind, push intellectual boundaries and create great thinkers. Now governments are pushing the masses these onto theoretical and academic production lines, hoping that ‘doers’ will emerge from the other side.

We’re in a situation where there is more pressure than ever to be officially credentialed, yet people emerge with few practical skills that will make them as productive workers. It is not just in engineering; in 2013, the Daily Mail reported that employers in the business sector were complaining about the non-existent skills of graduates, in things like maths, English, customer handling and working independently. A similar article in the UK added a lack of technical skills and commercial awareness to that list. The consensus amongst employers is that university graduates are not workforce ready and that hiring them means training them. We are simultaneously over-educated and under-skilled.

Being practical means being productive and being productive means you generate wealth for yourself, your employer and the country. Australians have strong roots in practicality. How can we reclaim those in the current age of credentialism?

Firstly, we need to recognise that our education only partly qualifies us. Our focus needs to be on getting our hands dirty in the workplace. Studying mechanical engineering? Spend your holidays with a mechanic changing oil filters. Want to design roads? Go and pick the brains of the roads supervisor. Meeting an elderly boss who has built 400 bridges in his lifetime, employs thirty people, and still works a twelve hour day in his early seventies? Get down on your knees and show respect to the man for making a business work, then ask him how he did it. Ask yourself, is what I’m learning/doing at the moment directly producing wealth?
In The Spectator, writer Mark Mason suggested that the current generation could be the first ones who will not want their children to attend university. We need to recognise that university equips us in some ways but not in others.

We also need to recognise that the tide is turning against the credentialised age. Substance will eventually win through; employers short on cash will hire people based on what they do, not their education, finding it saves them time, money and stress.

A bridge builder who fits the description articulated above once said, that the most important thing is being able to ‘make things happen’. The only way to do that is to develop our practical skills, because those alone will produce tangible results. We need to be workers who can get out there and make things happen, which is really the whole point of education in the first place.

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