As the contested holiday of Labor Day is recognized on this first Monday in September, California’s Community Colleges are at an interesting point in their century-old history especially as it pertains to our mission and students’ professional lives. (I use the term professional life rather than workforce both to avoid the connotations of workforce as managed employees in replaceable positions, and to focus on the distinction between private life and the hours for which individuals receive compensation for their labor).

Educators legitimately concerned about “tracking” students of color and/or individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds into what had been called “vocational” programs have devalued skilled professions necessary for a functioning economy. This implicit and sometimes explicit communication and behavior has likely dissuaded many individuals from pursuing careers that may have proven fulfilling and well-suited to those uninterested in spending the bulk of their days working in an office environment.

The California Legislature’s substantial investment in career education acknowledges not only that positions once requiring a high school diploma now demand post-secondary education, but also that we must reframe and reconceptualize our approach to encouraging, counseling, educating, and placing students pursuing career education. (I use the term career education rather than career technical education recognizing that technology is omnipresent in 21st century work regardless of the color of one’s collar).

In acknowledgement of the one day of the year that we as a nation recognize the history and centrality of what most of us will spend the majority of our adult lives doing, I write to recommend two books for anyone interested in reflecting upon our dominant conceptualization, discourse, and educational approach to career education.

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford was a highly successful book upon its release in 2009. Described as a “philosopher and mechanic,” Crawford earned his Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago and served as a postdoctoral fellow on its Committee on Social Thought. After five months as executive director of a think tank in Arlington, Virginia, Crawford left to open a motorcycle repair shop. His description of how and why he made this change is reflected in the larger argument of the book and his empirical experience endows the work with significant credibility.

While the book’s primary focus and arguments aren’t upon the relationship between education and work, its relevance to the issues educators are concerned about such as matching individuals with productive and satisfying professional lives will find much to contemplate in Crawford’s work.

Another book you might enjoy with your Labor Day festivities has the wonderful title, I Love Learning; I Hate School, and is the work of University of Notre Dame Anthropology Professor Susan D. Blum. Blum’s analysis of our dominant educational approach from pre-school through higher education – with an emphasis on undergraduate education – is also very much the story of Blum’s conversion from unreconstructed academician dismissive of co-curricular undergraduate pursuits – which she viewed as taking precious time away from the scholarly work that should be the sole focus of their time - to unabashed critic of the “game of schooling,” and supporter of active learning found in service learning, student government, and other co-curricular activities. Blum employs anthropological methods and analysis to dissect an education system that ignores or directly counters learning theory and cognitive science as well as the reality of how human beings learn and develop skills.

Although very different books, together they inspire timely reflection on the relationship between work and career education.  

By Larry Galizio, Ph.D.
President & CEO, Community College League of California