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I am trying to think of a single job I’ve ever had that did not require a relatively extensive amount of training.

These thoughts come in the aftermath of reading a recent lament in The Wall Street Journal about how the pandemic has left new graduates without the “basic skills” necessary to be useful in their workplaces.

The article itself is a cobbling together of anecdote, bad social science and dubious interpretation of data that relies on drawing straight-line conclusions from standardized assessments to real-world consequences, but I’m more interested in the question that goes begging in the piece around what kinds of training might be reasonable and necessary when people start in new jobs.

At one of my high school jobs working as a back office person at a mall clothing store whose primary job was to help people who came to try on clothes that had been altered, early on, I was asked to help fold shirts at the end of a day. I was left to my own devices for 15 or so minutes, and then the salesperson who put me on the task came back and said, “Don’t you know how to fold a shirt?”

“Clearly not,” I replied. He showed me, doing complicated midair flippy motion that somehow materialized into a neatly folded short-sleeved knit shirt. I tried it myself and wound up with a wrinkly wad of fabric. He showed me again, and it made no additional sense. Sighing, he went behind the sales counter and rummaged around for a minute or so before producing a piece of flat plastic that could be used as a device to shape the shirt around. He said he couldn’t remember the last time someone needed it.

Recognizing that I was a short-timer and therefore not worth the effort to teach, the sales staff stopped trying to press me into service with tidying the merchandise, my methodical work with the shirt-folding device more of a hindrance than help. I was instead tasked with separating the antitheft tags from the hangers, all of which were dumped together in a large cardboard box at the time of customer purchase. I didn’t ask why they didn’t just sort these things into two separate boxes from the get-go because, as I said, I was a short-timer and did not care.

When I spent a few months as a manual laborer for a pool-cleaning service, they provided a half-day course on handling potentially caustic and dangerous chemicals, because if you mixed the acid wash with the chlorine, you would make a gas that could kill you. I appreciated that very much.

When I worked for a law firm as a paralegal postcollege, they had regular training classes on the newfangled software, both Microsoft Word and the cutting-edge database software that allowed us to search disposition transcripts for particular names, words and phrases. We weren’t allowed to even have those programs on our computers until we attended class and passed a proficiency test. For the first three months of that job, I didn’t have a computer on my desk because I hadn’t been certified on any of the firm’s programs. It’s impossible to pretend to be busy when you don’t have a computer in front of you.

The number of things I had to be trained on when I went to work for the Leo J. Shapiro and Associates market research firm is nearly uncountable, starting with learning what the hell market research was and extending to everything else.

With the exception of the mall clothing store, where I got in trouble with the sales staff for failing to have the proper Muzak in the system in advance of the manager’s arrival (one of my informally assigned tasks), I did well at all of these jobs, even though I arrived at each and every one of them without any specific preparation for those jobs.

I had been generally prepared for these jobs. For example, for the pool-cleaning gig, the chief requirement was to be able-bodied and willing to follow direction, which once required me to try to scoop a dead, waterlogged raccoon carcass from the fetid water that had spent all winter held in by the pool’s cover. I moved my skimmer net up from under the body, only to have it essentially melt into a gooey state as the net passed pretty much through it. Problem solved. That stuff could make it through the drainage hose no problem.

In some cases, my lack of specific training became a real advantage. At the market research company, well educated in critical and creative thinking thanks to my creative writing and English literature degrees, while having no background in how social science research was conducted, I was easy to mold into the practices the company preferred. Some of the actual sociology majors struggled to unlearn what they knew.

To a certain extent, the same has been true in teaching writing, the job for which I had the least explicit training, certainly relative to the complexity and difficulty of the work. While my lack of training and deficit of explicit knowledge about teaching has resulted in a lot of trial coupled with much error, it also left me with the freedom to question practices that—to my eye—were unthinking dogma, rooted in folklore and tradition more than what was going to help students learn.

For sure, the impact of the pandemic on how school operated for a couple of years is new and real and has to be dealt with, but the complaints about lack of preparation for new graduates to leap into the workplace fray are old, eternal even. Successful companies identify talent and train that talent with an eye toward the long term. Expecting someone literally new to the job to do the work in exactly the way an employer or supervisor desires is purely foolish.

At the same time, successful companies are set up to recognize when the fresh blood has something new to offer to the equation, and rather than solely training the employee, they recognize where the company could be strengthened by adapting to the new. Had I stayed at the clothing store, I hope they would have accepted my on-the-spot culling of the antitheft tags from the hangers innovation I would have proposed.

As to what higher education should be doing about this, the answer is that it depends. Programs that are meant to specifically train employees in discrete tasks should be attuned to what those tasks are like in the context of the real world.

But in most cases, the real work is to help graduates be generally prepared for whatever might come, because the truth is, for most of us, the path through employment will be filled with surprises.

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