The End of the Trail

By Dr. Eugene Maier

It's the time of year when students across the country have resumed their trek along the educational trail—a journey that's likely to occupy them until they reach majority and beyond. Given the time and energy involved, it's worth asking, "What's the end of the trail?"

Here in Oregon, we've enacted the Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century. I suspect your state has a similar Goals 2000 plan. There's no question about the end of the educational trail envisioned in the Oregon Plan. The Plan envisions "a work force equal to any in the world by the year 2010." It provides a "continuous connection of learning for each student from preschool through postsecondary entry into the workforce." It provides for redesigning Oregon schools at every step: "preschool, kindergarten through high school, higher education, and school-to-work transition." The trail's end, we are led to believe, is a job. And not any job, for "Oregon's successful economy has created thousands of openings in well-paying, skilled positions for which there is a shortage of qualified Oregonians."

Unfortunately, however, there's not one of those well-paying, skilled positions for every Oregonian. According to the Oregon Occupational Employment and Wage Data for 1996—the latest available on the web—of the 1,121,500 wage earners, over half (52.8%) had employment in an occupation for which the median pay was less than $10.00 an hour, which amounts to about $20,000 a year. Almost one out of five (19.8%) were in occupations in which the median wage was less than $7.00 an hour. The occupation which employed the greatest number of people (54,180) was retail sales for which the median wage was $7.56; the second largest was office clerks (41,390) with a median salary of $8.99.

Nor are there a passel of well-paying, full-time jobs elsewhere in the States. In 1995, some 30 percent of all U.S. workers earned less than $7.25 an hour; more than 40 percent earned less than $9.25 an hour. Down-sizing, out-sourcing, and the use of temporary help has radically changed the nature of the American workplace. By the mid-nineties, the country's largest employer was Manpower, Inc., a temporary-help agency. In the last twenty years, over 43 million jobs have disappeared. And what's replacing them? Economist Jeremy Rifkin reports in The End of Work: "In August, 1993, the federal government announced that nearly 1,230,000 jobs had been created in the United States in the first half of 1993. What they failed to say was that... 728,000 of them—February 1993 alone, 90 percent of the 365,000 jobs created in the United States were part-time, and most of them went to people who were in search of full-time employment. Increasingly, American workers are being forced to settle for dead-end jobs just to survive."

A dead-end. That's where the trail leads for many of our students if we make a well-paying, skilled job the goal of the educational journey. To suggest to our students that a gratifying job awaits them if they stay on the educational trail is deceptive and defeating. If that's the goal, large numbers of students are doomed to failure before they take their first step on the journey.

To make the journey a rewarding experience for everyone, I suggest we focus on the trail, rather than the end of the trail. That we make the trail an end in itself. A trail that unfolds new vistas each step of the way. A trail where one experiences the satisfaction and confidence that comes from accessing and exploring the myriad talents latent in every human being. A trail that becomes so absorbing it becomes a lifetime occupation.

Rather than embarking on a plan to develop "a work force equal to any in the world by the year 2010"—with the underemployment and disappointment that is sure to follow if all are to be included—let's embark on a plan to provide an educational experience second to none in the world. An experience that profits everyone every step of the way, from preschool through postsecondary and on into the community at large, whatever the circumstances may be.