Training the mind and spirit for an event that will last a lifetime

To prepare to compete in the Olympics means training for 4 years or longer for an event that can last anywhere between 9.58 seconds (Olympic record for the 100 metre dash) and 2 hours 6 minutes 32 seconds (Olympic record for the 42.2 km marathon). When the starter’s pistol or tone sounds, the athlete is on his or her own. There’s no mistaking the objective or by when it has to be achieved. Date, time and place are known 4 years in advance.

Post-secondary education is at least a 4-year proposition. Our parents told us that earning a university degree was the price of admission to a high-paying job with the potential for upward mobility and the prospect of a well-funded retirement. It still can be, but it has to be the right degree in the right place at the right time.

The time is today. Where business and work are concerned, the world is an unforgiving, competitive, financially unstable place. In its January 25th – January 31st issue, The Economist said this about the inevitability of financial instability: “The frequency and severity of financial crises suggest that they are an inevitable part of capitalism.”

Traditional approaches to career planning and choosing post-secondary education aren’t working: the inevitability of employment is gone. Unemployment and underemployment numbers on both sides of the 49th parallel bear this out. But the predictability isn’t gone.

Canadian legal icon Heenan Blaikie’s turning out the lights on 500 lawyers last week didn’t do much to reassure aspiring Clarence Darrows about the wisdom of choosing law as a career. What it did do is underscore the need for all current and prospective job seekers to become much more familiar with the Canadian landscape than they are now, because doing business with the people who live on that landscape is what’s going to feed and support them.

If you’re old enough to have children in Grade 11, chances are you grew up with one or more of these names. Do you know what they have in common?

  • Alcan
  • Baltimore Colts
  • Braniff
  • Bricklin
  • British American Oil
  • Brooklyn Dodgers
  • CFCF
  • CKEY
  • CKGM
  • CKO
  • Control Data
  • CP Air
  • CP Hotels
  • De Soto
  • Digital Equipment
  • Dofasco
  • Eastern Airlines
  • Eastern Provincial Airways
  • Falconbridge
  • Imperial
  • Mercury
  • Montreal Expos
  • Montreal Royals
  • Northeast Airlines
  • Northern Telecom
  • Oldsmobile
  • Ottawa Rough Riders
  • Pan Am
  • Plymouth
  • Pontiac
  • QuébecAir
  • Stelco
  • TWA
  • Univac
  • White Rose

Give up?

They no longer exist as companies or as brand names. If you’re thinking: “Now I know why I haven’t heard or read about them in the business pages lately!” the world has passed you by.

If you go back over the list, you’ll know that they didn’t wink out of existence all at once, or with great fanfare. In fact, it happened so gradually that you probably never even noticed. Can you name some or all of the big U.S. banks and financial institutions that went out of business in 2008 because of the sub-prime mortgage crisis? Do you know in what European country all major banks failed?

Change doesn’t happen nearly as fast or as abruptly as most people think it does. To paraphrase Sandburg, “it comes on little cat feet.” Major corporations were loath to adopt the personal computer when IBM gave its blessing to the device in 1981. IT managers were quick to put forward all kinds of reasons for not introducing them. At it turns out, many of the reasons were perfectly valid, and it took time to work out all the kinks. But once they were worked out, the floodgates opened. Despite that, there are still people who can’t compose, send and respond to e-mail or set tabs in Microsoft Word.

The flight of manufacturing jobs didn’t begin and end on the same day. Nor did outsourcing. Both are still going on, and not only where manufacturing’s concerned. Heenan Blaikie’s demise was definitely not a good sign for aspiring entrants into the lawyering business. University postgraduates can’t earn a living wage as teaching assistants at the schools that granted them their degrees. More little cat feet.

Now comes ‘It’s That Time of Year Again’ courtesy of The Market Ticker® and my colleague Bruce Stewart. It talks about university education in the U.S. in a way most people on either side of the border don’t. It’s very sobering and we urge you to read it.

Post-secondary education is training of the mind for an event that will last a lifetime. On February 4th, c|net quoted Microsoft’s newly appointed CEO Satya Nadella’s who put it very succinctly when he said: “Our industry does not respect tradition; it only respects innovation.”

Now here’s the good news. Little cat feet leave tracks. (Cat owners will know what I mean.) You can follow those tracks backwards and extrapolate forwards. The tools to answer the question “How did we get here and where are we going?” are in place now. The difference between learning how to use them and not using them will boil down to who’s competing for the sake of competing—and who’s competing to win.

Canada’s Olympic athletes are competing to win.


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