Cambrian: Opinion

Graduation can be a troubling time in the modern world

Leffingwell High School teacher Tom Holt, left, talks about valedictorian Daniel Forrest's accomplishments during graduation ceremonies June 10.
Leffingwell High School teacher Tom Holt, left, talks about valedictorian Daniel Forrest's accomplishments during graduation ceremonies June 10. sprovost@thetribunenews.com

Cambria’s two high school graduation ceremonies were among the most uplifting I’ve attended. Students and faculty members alike talked about the close-knit communities and strong bonds formed on the Coast Union and Leffingwell campuses. 

Not only were diplomas handed out, but hugs and compliments galore were exchanged along with them. I was left with the feeling that here was a group of people who would stay in touch over the years — who would continue to support one another long after they had stopped sharing space in classrooms and on athletic fields.

That support extended to the community at large. At Coast, the number of scholarships awarded (51) outnumbered the 49 graduates themselves. At Leffingwell, the ratio was even higher: Four students walked across the stage and more than three times that number of scholarships were awarded.

That was the heartwarming part of attending my first graduation ceremonies in Cambria.

Then there was the troubling part: Coast Unified Superintendent Victoria Schumacher told the graduates that, in the 21st century, they could expect to hold an average of 14 careers during their lifetimes. 

Think about that for a moment. Let it sink in.

Art Van Rhyn drew up a cartoon for The Cambrian last week that showed an excited teen exulting that she’s about to embark on a “quest for the perfect summer, the perfect surf, the perfect party!”

A balding, somewhat downcast fellow (presumably her father), reading a newspaper, looks up at her from his easy chair and responds, “How about the perfect job?”

Does the perfect job even exist?

Give the superintendent credit: She was preparing the graduates for a harsh reality of life. The Bureau of Labor Statistics issued a report in March showing that people born from 1957 to 1964 held an average of 11.7 jobs just between the ages of 18 and 48. That’s roughly 2 1/2 years per job.

It’s worth noting that there’s a distinction between jobs and careers. On its website  — www.bls.gov — the BLS states that it cannot estimate how often people change careers during their working lives because “no consensus has emerged on what constitutes a career change.” It asks: Has a construction worker who decides to open a home-remodeling business changed careers? What about a newspaper reporter who becomes a TV news anchor?

Whatever your definition, the numbers seem daunting.

The challenges inherent in changing jobs, companies and even careers are not new. My dad tells the story of how his father worked for years in the aerospace industry and was within a few weeks of qualifying for his pension when he was fired without any apparent cause. He responded by reinventing himself as a federal employee overseeing the sale of savings bonds.

But although it isn’t new, it’s happening far more often than before, and it’s troubling for more than a few reasons.

For one thing, job change is stressful. According to the Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale, based on two psychiatrists’ study of medical records, changes in employment are among the most stress-inducing events a person can experience. Being fired (No. 8), retiring (No. 10), undergoing a “major business readjustment” (No. 15) and changing to a different line of work (No. 17) all ranked among the top 20. The more these things happen, the more stress individuals and society as a whole are forced to absorb.

More stress leads to higher health care costs, which have been spiraling out of control all on their own for years now.

To make matters worse, the costs of higher education have been in the throes of a similarly dizzying ascent. Tuition and fees at California’s public four-year institutions have nearly doubled in 2014 dollars over the past decade.

Couple that with increasingly frequent job or career changes, and that means students and their parents are getting even less bang for their buck than it might appear: They’re investing more money in learning skills that might only earn them a paycheck for a few years. After that, they could be back to square one — and still on the hook for thousands of dollars in student loans. 

In what the Harvard Business Review described as a new “era of hyperspecialization,” this is even more troubling, because workers who train for specialized fields will be even less equipped to shift gears. They’ll either have to settle for less-skilled, lower-paying jobs, or they’ll have to seek retraining by going back to school … and taking on even more debt.

In light of all this, it’s heartening to learn that the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education has received $6 million to spend on Career Pathways development over the next two school years. Even more important, Schumacher and Coast Unified are focused on developing skills that can translate across a variety of fields. The four C’s, as she refers to them, are collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity.

In the current environment, it seems like the right approach.

At Cambria’s graduation ceremonies, she and other speakers counseled the seniors to make the most of their opportunities, especially those available at Cuesta College. It’s good advice. Under the Cuesta Promise program, every new SLO County High School student is eligible to have their fees paid for a full year at the community college.

Those generous scholarships from donors in Cambria and along the North Coast also help tremendously.

Such help is gratifying in the here and now. But what about two, four or 10 years down the line, when the new graduates are adults saddled with student loans and changing jobs? That’s what worries me. And it’s all the more reason for graduating seniors to take advantage of those opportunities now.

They may not come again.

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