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a note on education « Previous | |Next »
August 29, 2010

If globalization is here to stay (and it is given the global reach of many corporations), then should we be investing in human capital rather than subsidizing Australian firms? Isn't the former option --investing in people--- a better one to keep the Australian economy competitive than the latter one?

The big idea of centre-left political economy, which was popularised by Robert Reich in the early 1990s—is that globalisation would benefit almost everyone, so long as governments in rich countries equip their citizens with the education and skills needed to switch into growth sectors, and away from the low-skilled work that is emigrating to poorer countries. The well- being and the standard of living of societies in the twenty-first century will depend to a large extent on the skills and insights of their citizens.

It is worth returning to the argument in the light of the limits of Labor's "education revolution" that concentrated on national tests, memorisation, apprenticeships and its computers in schools program. The significance of the latter can be seen if we turn to Reich's The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism, where Reich divided jobs into three broad categories for assessing their contribution to new the global economy. These are "symbolic- analytic" services, routine production services, and "in-person" services.

The first of these is carried out by what Reich calls "symbolic analysts" engineers, attorneys, scientists, professors, executives, journalists, consultants and other "mind workers" who engage in processing information and symbols for a living. These individuals, which make up roughly twenty percent of the labor force, occupy a privileged position in that they can sell their services in the global economy. They are well-educated and will occupy an even more advantageous position in society in the future.

Reich argued that routine production workers and in-person service workers will fare much worse in the new economy. Routine production workers include those who perform repetitive tasks — assembly line workers, data processors, foremen, and supervisors. Examples of in- person service workers are waitresses, janitors, hospital attendants, and child care workers. These two categories of workers do not compete in the global work force and are at a considerable economic disadvantage. This is especially true of routine producers. The future of service workers is less clear cut since their services are in demand by symbolic analysts.

The skills people need to develop have to do with problem solving and identification, developing critical facilities, understanding the value of experimentation, and the ability to collaborate. In other words, given that economies are changing so rapidly, the most valuable skills someone can acquire are the skills to learn rapidly and efficiently and to go into almost any situation and figure out what has to be learned.

Relatively unskilled people who have not gone to college, who do not have the conceptual problem-solving skills of the future, are finding themselves in competition with millions of unskilled people around the world who are eager to work for a small fraction of their minimum wages. They need to have the skills to survive and to be productive in this new emerging world economy so that they can get better jobs and generate high incomes of real value.

Presumably, that is what Labor's computer in schools was beginning to do. Or gestured towards. But it was only a tentative shift away from working with your hands to working with your brain . Beginning and tentative because we hear little about basic skills such as abstraction, system thinking, experimentation and problem solving; or teaching teachers to nurture analytic minds instead of filling them up with facts.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:30 PM |