Your Dream Is Still In Reach

Here on the second post of the new year, I’ve already begun to cheat. Today’s post is actually my January entry in my MicroSoft Small Business Forum column. Don’t judge me!

I was recently riding the public transportation system of a major North American city, where I saw an ad for a local college’s continuing education program. The ad featured a slogan, something like, “Your dream is still in reach”, and a big glossy photograph of an astronaut conducting a spacewalk.

The intent of the message is obvious, that one’s dreams are often linked to one’s career, which is often dependent on one’s education, which is often cut short by life’s unexpected demands. Furthermore, the message is a hopeful one, that the opportunity to return to the path of achieving one’s dreams can be had by simply returning to school… Not just any kind of school, but a continuing education program, which is specially designed to service the educational needs of individuals who typically must continue to work full-time and perhaps have been out of the formal education system for a while.

It’s an excellent message, and I applaud it. When in doubt, more formal education is rarely a bad option in life. In fact, for literally millions of dispossessed, marginalized or simply poor people around the world, it’s education that offers the sole hope of ascension through society’s hierarchical ranks.

It’s a message that I wish more of my university undergraduate students would take to heart. In a Western liberal democracy, especially one with socialized services like we have in Canada, it is a historically rare and invaluable service to have formal taxpayer-subsidized post-secondary education available to anyone who can make time for it. Indeed, it’s a gift that hundreds of millions of people globally would give much to receive. Yet, it amazes me how many take this gift for granted.

In an increasingly globalized economy, especially in these dire times of worldwide depression, the vital need for marketable and demonstrable skills has never been greater. The number of students opting for the easiest path through their educational experiences is nonetheless great indeed, and saddeningly so. Many deliberately choose programs that require minimal or zero writing, for example, or trivial amounts of mathematics. In short, many students eschew educational experiences that may challenge the extant gaps in their skills sets. This is precisely the opposite to what they should be doing if they wish to maximize their educational experiences to enable an advantage in the workplace.

The problem, I think, is in the distinction between education and certification. We are, I believe, entering an era wherein certification –the obtaining of a degree or diploma– is less important than the extent to which one can prove and demonstrate the skills that the certification purports to represent. In other words, days of the “paper chase” may be coming to an end. In my post-PhD days, when I was enduring several job interviews per week, it was not unusual to undergo skills testing for specific knowledge and skills that my expensive and lengthy doctoral degree presumably conferred upon me. Having the degree was not sufficient for many potential employers; proof of its value was needed. And this is as it should be.

The saddening part, though, is the unspoken lie that subtends the ad. While it’s true that further education is an excellent lever to improve one’s position in society, it’s also true that there still exists a window of opportunity for optimally effecting that improvement. It is unlikely indeed that someone returning to that college’s school of continuing studies could aspire to the position of astronaut, as the ad suggests, because, frankly, they’d be in competition for that prized position with individuals who’d never taken any educational breaks, and who’d committed their lives to obtaining the requisite skills at a world class level.

Despite this caveat, I believe it remains an important truth that the path out of economic distress is a combination of many factors, among them luck, industry, enterprise and, most inaccessible of all, education.