Friday, August 03, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Brave New Careers Edition

Laura Vanderkam had an interesting post this week about creative destruction and what that might mean for modern careers. As I commented on her post, I have actually found the realization that I have no job security very liberating, since if no job is permanent, there is no reason to allow any job to make me unhappy- but this is only possible because I now have my financial life arranged such that my low job security does not translate directly to no financial security.  I am very sympathetic to people who are having to make the jarring transition from expecting a secure and stable to career to accepting a much less certain one, but as I recently discussed, things can sometimes work out quite well, even if you feel like you're on plan B (or C, or D....)

I mentioned in that earlier post that I would not steer my children away from science if they show and interest in it. Laura's post got me thinking again about what education I think my kids need to navigate the career landscape they are likely to face. Obviously, I am just guessing. I have no way of predicting what the world will be like in 20+ years. I will encourage my children to follow their interests, but I will also encourage them to develop some strong foundational skills that will support any career and that they can fall back on if the field that catches their interest turns out to be one without great job prospects. What are those foundational skills? Obviously, we'll emphasize the basics of strong writing skills and strong math skills. I clearly think learning a second language is important, too-we're sending Pumpkin to a Spanish immersion school in September. I am also hoping to interest our kids enough in computers to get them to learn the basics of programming, because I think computers and automated processes in general are only going to get more important, and already a lot of the best jobs require an understanding of how they work, if not actual programming expertise.

The fact that I want my kids to learn to program seems to put me a bit in opposition to Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror, who wrote a post awhile back arguing that no, not everyone needs to program. In fact, I don't really disagree with him. Not everyone needs to be able to produce production quality code. I do think, though, that everyone should be exposed to programming, preferably when relatively young, and especially if they happen to be female. This seems like the best path to overcome the stereotypes and misconceptions about what programming is and who can be a programmer, which might otherwise keep people who would actually love and excel at programming from even trying it.

Also, watching a machine misinterpret the instructions you thought were really quite clear is an excellent way to sharpen your logic skills, and that is a very good thing.

I do not write code these days, and even when I did, I was more of a scripter than a coder. My technical "home" is in database design and management. But I know enough about coding to help me understand what might and might not be possible to achieve, and to have some idea about what is hard and what is easy. Those are excellent skills to have, and are also skills that I think will serve my kids well in almost any profession, given the fact that software is showing up just about everywhere these days and seems unlikely to start retreating. (See, for instance, a recent Derek Lowe post about work to automate the development and refinement of organic chemistry reactions.) In fact, the programming world has moved on so far from what I once knew that I am considering assigning myself a little coding project as a hobby, just to freshen up my knowledge.

Of course, I have no way to guarantee that I can get my kids interested in coding. They are already showing clear interests in learning other languages, which is great. We think that happened because we made it available and we let it stay fun. Also, we got lucky. We're planning to try the same thing with computers, and hope for some more good luck. We'll see how it goes.

(We are also, by the way, planning to introduce our kids to music and/or other arts, with similar hopes for that "taking"- I just don't see as direct a path to marketability in such a wide range of careers from having some music skills as I do for languages and software.)

What skills do you think the next generation should learn to prepare themselves for success? Are there any skills you wish you'd learned as a kid? Are you, like us, trying to "fix" that for your children (if you have them)?


  1. Fishscientist11:58 PM

    I definitely want my child to develop good Maths skills, I just hope we can sustain her interest until her late teens, when school Maths gets a lot more interesting. With this in mind, I'm planning to get her knitting as soon as she's old enough. I started knitting recently and I had no idea how Maths based it was! I think it will be a great way for her to appreciate the importance of using Maths and also to learn how to understand a basic code (or not so basic depending on your pattern!).

  2. me writing sciDAD math

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  4. "I have actually found the realization that I have no job security very liberating, since if no job is permanent, there is no reason to allow any job to make me unhappy"

    I can't resist doing some mad-libbing here and substituting the word "life" for "job" = "I have actually found the realization that I have no LIFE security very liberating, since if no LIFE is permanent, there is no reason to allow any LIFE to make me unhappy." Yep. I like that one, too. ;)

    My parents were far from perfect but I'm grateful I have very few regrets about skills I never learned as a child. The one that stands out is having missed out on seeing certain interpersonal skills in action. I would have liked to have seen my parents model a happier marriage and a more active social life. But I think they nailed the rest of the basics.

    Skills we plan to saddle our kids with before they leave our nest (many of these have to do with the tools we happen to have at hand where we live): learned optimism, how to look after their own health (including self-defense, exercise, healthful eating, & protecting their sexual health), a love of reading and writing, financial savvy which is of course predicated upon math literacy, the basic social graces and etiquette, fluency in English and Spanish, and proficiency in French and Italian, the ability to ski double black diamond runs, partner dancing skills, survival skills (including how to swim, drive defensively, and perform CPR), how to run a household including how to hire and supervise people who work in your home, musical literacy, an understanding of the basic principles of science, logic, research methods, statistics, economics, democratic government and US Constitutional rights, and last but not least how to communicate, actively listen, and have healthy relationships.

    I didn't include computer stuff. That's probably a gap they'll complain about as adults!

  5. Anonymous7:39 PM

    math, writing, logical thinking, critical thinking, the ability to learn from mistakes, the ability to seek out or at least to accept challenges, responsibility, communication

    basically, things I want to see in RAs... everything else I can teach them on the job

    (oh, and swimming... life skill)

  6. My mother insisted that we have a second language, a sport, and an instrument as children/teenagers. She didn't see this as a path *to* anything, but as the foundation we required to develop as human beings. Not surprisingly, I tend to think along her lines - of human potential - rather than success. Of course, I realize that this post is about skills, which is a slightly different topic! So I'm not trying to say, Oh I think it's more important to talk about X than Y - I'm just surprised by my own tendency not to think about skills and success in quite that way. But then again, I'm a humanities professor so obviously I don't rank "marketability" that highly!

    I second @n&m's list, especially swimming, and a host of practical skills that have nothing to do with professional success necessarily and more to do with having a good skill set to apply to life - cooking, organizing, basic handyman skills (my husband is a wood worker and I'm always in awe at his ability to *make things*; he can even sew). My poor parents tried to insist that I learn how to change a tire, but it never quite took. But that's an important skill. And how to use jumper cables!

  7. Anonymous7:36 PM

    How neat that your daughter will be going to a Spanish Immersion school! My siblings and I did as well (one in northern CA), and now my brother and sister both landed jobs where they speak Spanish all day long in their work environments. In both cases their language skills have been a tremendous asset to their career, not to mention broadened their lives. (My sister, a doctor, has done several stints of working abroad in rural latin america). What a wonderful opportunity for her!

    Hush, I love your list! What a great idea to really list out all the skills you want to make sure you equip them with before they leave home. Two more I would add to the list: how to parallel park, and how to decline a (first or later) date gracefully. (Says the girl who never went on a date, and was unnecessarily rude and awkward, because I didn't know how I would say 'no' if I didn't want to go again).

  8. Zenmoo10:44 PM

    I like @n&m's list in general, but would add a few childhood skills I acquired that have turned out to be really quite useful...

    Like the ability to load an airport luggage trolley efficiently, the ability to understand people with heavily accented English and the ability to remember names & faces *really* well.

  9. I think the most important skill for my kids is to be resourceful -- an elusive mixture of optimism, practicality, independence, social skills -- that allows them to learn from mistakes, make best use of their talents and bounce back on their feet with minimal help (although I do know a lot in life depends on luck and we all definitely should not be too proud to ask for help when needed). Now giving this trait to my offsprings is another matter entirely...

    And yes, agree on swimming!

  10. Thanks for the link! I'd like my kids to learn to think like entrepreneurs: what skills do I have, and how can I get people to pay me for those skills? Skills I don't want them to have: how to turn on the TV. I read recently that 80-plus percent of 2-3 year olds can do this. Not mine yet. Then again, given how much they love TV, perhaps I should be concerned about the lack of curiosity on how to do it themselves.

  11. Alexicographer9:17 PM

    Ha -- @Laura Vanderkam made me laugh, because, yes, I relish our kid's inability to operate (he can turn on) the tv ... even at 5. And it's not from lack of watching it, but he has limited understanding of/ability to use the remote, and that's fine with me (well, heck, actually the same is true of me though my skills surpass his).

    Count me among those interested in practical and/or general ("resourceful") skills, though I admit I pretty much assume my kid will graduate high school with a good command (likely not fluency, unless we do more, which will be a function of life + kid's interests) of a second language and calculus, be able to write well, and have assorted sciences. Ha -- overestimate, much (he's 5)? But really, we have good public schools and this is just sort of the trajectory I envision (it was mine and my brother's, in those same schools, though not, to be fair, exactly my stepchildren's ditto, though theirs also included subsets of the above).

    But, yes -- ability to change a tire, the oil, and jump-start a car. Drive a stick shift. Call a taxi (a skill this small-town girl didn't have when I went away to school, and just let me say: no one should ever be stuck anywhere because she's relying on someone else to give her a ride. Someone else who may, shall we say, have a different agenda -- or a lack of sobriety -- or whatever. And no, I wasn't a victim of anything horrid as a result of this lack of competence, but ... still). Swim (he's pretty much got that, if measured as a basic competence not an elegant ability). Manage money. Use a credit card (or whatever we have then) responsibly. Fix a few cheap meals. Tackle basic sewing and basic home repair tasks (and complete both adequately well). Write a thank-you letter. Enjoy quiet time that doesn't involve being entertained, both alone and with others. Plan and undertake a trip on his own (not necessarily solo, but with him responsible for his part of the planning and implementing, whatever that entails).

    I'm sure there's more, but those are skills that spring to mind.

    1. ... how to use public transportation. And read a map!


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