College may not be for everyone – but learning is

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

College is not for everyone.

I’ve been a college-level instructor in the greater Tacoma area for many years now, and this experience has given me astounding insights into who we are as a community.

We have the Running Start program for determined high school students and we have a variety of vocational retraining programs for veterans, disabled, homeless or recently incarcerated students.

To say that this can be a volitalile mix in any given class room would be the ultimate understatement. Some of my Running Start students are sixteen years old, (which means that they were born AFTER the year 2000) some are combat-hardened veterans with drug, alcohol and PTSD issues, some have been recently released from long-term incarceration or drug and alcohol programs, some have travelled around the world, some have never been outside of Pierce County.

The one thing they all have in common is that virtually all, very soon, will be working alongside us in the local economy.

You can label them as miileenials, Gen X, or any other label you can think of, but the reality is that each group, if not each individual within that group has very different expections for their lives – and very different obstacles.

They are the most racially diverse (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/03/07/millennials-in-adulthood/#racial-diversity) in American history: 43% of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest percentage of any generation in American history. And while they are expected to be the most educated generation to date, this achievement has come at a cost: many millennials have a stunning student debt that keeps them from fully participating in the economy, as in being able to buy a house or start a business.

The reality is that they, we, and our entire economy are all in a time of enormous transition; automation and technolgy and educational oportunity in non-traditional and unexpected formats are changing everything.

For a variety of reasons Tacoma is at the epicenter of many of these changes. JBLM is Pierce County’s largest employer by far, and we have a far higher correctional facility population than anywhere else in the state.

Approximately 95% of those incarcerated will some day be released, and when they are, most of them won’t go very far. Their home towns rarely welcome them back and their case workers and probation officers are all here.

As I mentioned, I have had many of these students in my classes – but that does not mean they want to be there. Many of them don’t.

But they know that they are lost without at least an introduction to a constantly shifting technological puzzle with pieces appearing, evaporating and changing even as we look at them.

Drones, autonomous cars, the “gig economy” and “virtual assistants” like Siri and Alexa are changing how we think about work, travel and education.

And then there is money. I don’t know about anyone else, but I almost never use cash. I probably spend a hundred dollars on my debit card for every dollar I spend in cash.

But it gets even more surreal – for many of my older students, there was a fairly solid relationship between hours worked and pay earned. There is no such ratio among my younger students – they know that fortunes can be made on YouTube, apps and viral videos.

They also know that money need not be earned at all. Several nations are experimenting with Universal Basic Income - http://basicincome.org/basic-income/ (UBI).

This breaking of the linkage between work and income is probably the most surreal change of all.

At first glance, it seems crazy. Only in the context of previously inconceivable techonlogical and social changes does it make sense.

Given the choice of UBI or widespread, long term if not semi-permanent unemployment thanks to robotics and automation, UBI makes more sense than any of the social or economic alternatives.

Scotland, SwitzerlandFinland, and Canada are all exploring, if not testing this idea.

To track the trajectory of Universal Basic Income from crazy idea to rational public policy, you could start here.

For my younger students, these changes are the only reality they have ever known. For my older, L&I, veteran and recently incarcerated students, this vocational landscape could not be more foreign.

I want to emphasize that this is not just my opinion or experience, checkout this website form one of Canada’s premier human resource journals.

To get a sense of the challenges and changes coming our way, take a look here.

Phones from about a century ago. DeWitt C. Wheeler, photographer, circa 1910.  Music Division, The New York Public Library. (photographed ca. 1900-1914; reproduced 1980 - 1910). Man and woman sit on telephone wire. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/9646e150-26d4-7a44-e040-e00a18063f93

Phones from about a century ago. DeWitt C. Wheeler, photographer, circa 1910. Music Division, The New York Public Library. (photographed ca. 1900-1914; reproduced 1980 – 1910). Man and woman sit on telephone wire. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/9646e150-26d4-7a44-e040-e00a18063f93

The technology gold-rush is upon us and will impact our culture and the way we live more than we can imagine. YouTube was founded February 14, 2005, Apple’s first iPhone was introduced on June 29, 2007, Google was incorporated on September 4, 1998, the first tweet was sent on Twitter on March 21, 2006, and Bitcoin, the  first decentralized digital currency, was released in 2009.

These technologies have turned our economy inside out and upside down, and iterations and expansions of each of these are coming faster than most of us can keep track of.  Money, careers and reputations can be created, falsified or obliterated within nanoseconds.

Several years ago I took a business class and had a professor who worked with what was then Boeing Computer Services. He mentioned that he had a PhD in computer science from 1959. I did not know whether I should laugh or be impressed.

Computer science in 1959 was radical and futuristic – for its time. To us it seems simplistic if not preposterous.

Not too many years from now, people will look back on our smart phones, phablets and search engines and marvel -  not at their sophistication, but at their clumsiness and inefficiency – just as we look back and roll our eyes at the infamous 1980′s “brick” phones.

May it be forever so…