Making Widgets

Some time ago I wrote a post about the need to make distinctions in order to be clear about the things we discuss. One of the distinctions I mentioned is that between “wants” and “needs.” We rarely make the distinction and that leads to major confusion, especially when forming policies or selling goods. We insist, for example, that people need the product they are buying when, in fact, they may simply want the product. One of the things marketing people are very good at doing is creating wants and they do this by insisting that those wants are needs. (Do we really need a 5 hour energy drink??)

Surprisingly, educators do the same thing. They talk about what the kids need when they are really talking about what the kids want. It’s easier to determine wants than needs, because we can simply ask the kids: “what do you want?” Or we can continue to dumb-down the curriculum until they stop complaining. When it comes to needs, the kids don’t have the slightest clue. And this is a very important point, because it leads us to the central reason why education is in deep do-do: those who are in a position to determine what the kids really need fail to act on that knowledge and fall into the marketing trap of simply determining what the kids want and then attempting to meet those fleeting wants by insisting that they are providing the things the kids really need. It’s the path of least resistance. The confusion is abundant and until it is cleared up there is little likelihood that those who teach will lead those who learn rather than the other way around.

But there’s another distinction that we seldom make and that is the distinction between education and training. I have discussed the confusion in previous blogs but have never focused on the key difference — until now. Training involves teaching learners how to do something, say, make widgets. Education involves understanding why we might want to make widgets in the first place. This is a critical difference, and the fact that education has devolved into job training is a serious mistake, because we need folks now more than ever who ask the troubling questions — why DO we make widgets?

There is a growing number of company CEOs who insist that educators are failing because the people coming out of college lack the ability to communicate, read and write memos, and speak before an audience. These highly paid corporate bosses talk a great deal about the need for these young people to have a broader, “liberal education,” though what they mean is that the folks they hire should be more effective at their jobs. However, at the level at which people are hired the message to hire broadly educated employees has failed to filter down and the initial search is simply for college graduates who can do a particular job, who can make widgets. The computer apps these recruiters use tend to screen out applicants who have majored in, say, philosophy, because presumably those people cannot make widgets (even though they could be trained to do so in a matter of weeks [days?]). So the job market looks bleak for graduates in such subjects as philosophy, literature, and history, because they are weeded out by a process that is designed to assure companies that the folks hired can do meaningless jobs without the companies themselves having to spend money training them: the colleges are now expected to turn out people to make widgets, not ask why those widgets are being made in the first place. So, many college students are now getting double majors — one in a broader field they actually enjoy and another, narrower one, that will get them past the initial screening for that first job. Not a bad strategy.

Even the CEOs who speak about the need for liberally educated employees don’t really mean it. The last thing they want is employees who ask troubling questions. They want workers who are already trained and can effectively make and market the products. The irony is that those who stop to ask the troubling questions would make the best employees in the long run because it is those people who can not only learn how to make and market the products, but they can also figure out how to improve those products as the world changes and demands for new products arise — as they most assuredly will. Because the only certain thing about the future is that things will change. And this is why America needs educated college graduates, not simply those trained to make widgets.

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2 thoughts on “Making Widgets

  1. Hugh, what many at the top to realize is the better ideas tend to happen either closer to the customer or where the products or services are created. That requires some thinking on the part of the lower level person in the corporate strata which also means an ability and confidence to articulate the idea. Paul O’Neill turning Alcoa around is a great example of opening lines of communication both ways. On the flip side, we had a CEO who would not listen and came from the outside. When certain changes were announced they were dead in the water, as we had tried and failed with that change before. I digressed some, so please forgive. Good post, BTG

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