A few weeks ago I received three calls in the same week from different folks who had read or heard about The Columbia Future Forge program and Mowtown Teen Lawn Care. One of them had found a brochure on his desk when he took his new job. Another wasn't even sure how he knew about us, but he did....which was odd. But, all of them were interested in us because our program was offering something that the schools are not. And it isn't vocational skills.
Our programs do offer vocational skills. The Forge, which offers trainings and mentoring, trains kids in professionalism, goal setting, personal finance, and a personality/gifts assessment. The object is to impart some useful professional and life skills. Many of our schools do little of this. I am not the Junior Mike Rowe and I don't believe that trades are necessarily the future. In fact, I worry that many of our trades will be gone in the next 50 years due to automation. But, we do need more of them in schools. Schools are slowly starting to re-gather themselves from the college craze. They are starting to talk about bringing trade skills and professional training again which is great because many students don't want the college ideal that has been foisted on them. But, even though I agree that there is a skills gap and too much college craze, that isn't why we created our program.
You can have all the professionalism you want. You can manage your money like Warren Buffet. You can have the greatest goals in the world. You can know exactly what jobs you might be good at and have the skills for them. And you can still be...a really crappy human being.
The people who called me were interested in this last bit. The human being bit. The idea that you could teach human skills and job skills at the same time. The idea that students don't need another program. They need a human being to mentor them. That sounded worthwhile to them.
Even if our schools can get back to some vocational training and life skills training they will not be able to teach us how to be full human beings. We need another human to do that. At least that is what the incarnation seems to argue for. Traditionally those "human being" skills are what we might call "soft skills". They are the hardest to teach. I was recently reading a post by Seth Godin on this. It's superb and it's a 5 minute read. He argues that soft skills are what make most companies endure, innovate, and flourish. You can teach the other skills, but soft skills are what allow for innovation and a lack of them can destroy company culture. Soft skills, human skills, are almost never taught and are one of the most essential features of good employees, good co-workers, and good family members. They also happen to be at the heart of the gospel.
So, when a student came up to me a few weeks ago asking about our program I felt confused by some of his questions. He was dancing around something but I couldn't tell what. He was asking questions related to college, the military, and our mentors. It finally dawned on me that his expectation was that we were either trying to get him into college or trying to get him a job. What I had to explain was that while we would be delighted if he went to college or into the military (his current goal), we were more interested in who he was going to be when he got there. We don't need more soldiers and we don't really need more debt saddled college grads. We have enough of those. What we need is people who have a sense of who they are and what life is about when they get to those kinds of places. We want the most fully developed human beings serving in our military and we want a fully alive compassionate and rational human being studying physics in our collegiate laboratories. Our objective is human beings flourishing AS human beings wherever God has them. Period.
Seth Godin is right. They aren't "soft skills". They are essential skills for life in the individual and in any organization or society. Our ecclesial job is not to crank out successful people, or nice people, or even religious people. That smacks of a factory. If that is the best we can do we might as well automate everything now. Our job is to do the redemptive ditch digging of forging fully alive human beings, full bearers of the image of God. That is work worth doing. As Irenaeus was reported to have said, "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." In that case, Soli Deo Gloria.