For the past decade, I have had the privilege and honor of serving as the chairman and now co-chair with Dr. Cindy Fischer of the Talent Force 21 initiative. After a decade of work on this project, some general observations are in order.
Once Upon a Time
America’s first bestseller was written in January of 1776 by Thomas Paine. He called it Common Sense. And he wrote, “We now see with other eyes, we now hear with other ears, and we now think with other thoughts than we used to.”
Seeing with other eyes, hearing with other ears and thinking with other thoughts was Paine’s way of describing a mindset shift in America. He was stating that Americans had a new world view.
And that new world view generated a sense of urgency—a burning platform that generated action throughout the colonies. We know the rest of the story.
A New Reality
In the closing years of the 1990s, the Central Illinois Workforce Board set about seeing with other eyes, hearing with other ears and thinking with other thoughts about the nature of our regional workforce. So what was new in the seeing, hearing and thinking?
It was that our community, our region, our state and our nation no longer needed a workforce. What it needed was a talent force.
A talent force meant motivated people with a commitment to lifelong learning. It meant people with knowledge and skills and the ability to learn new things and work cooperatively and collaboratively with others.
But the stark reality, if not shock, was that our communities, the region, the state and the nation not only didn’t have that talent force, but were failing to prepare one for the future. The American talent pipeline was at best one-third full. The statistics here are well-known to iBi readers. A repetition of them would be tiresome.
Of course, it wasn’t that Americans didn’t have talent. The problem was that more than half of the talent wasn’t being developed—nor is it now. Human talent continues to be squandered and wasted—or is just atrophying.
Yet only a talent force can ensure the standard of living and prosperity that America had obtained during the past century. Our standard was the highest in the world. But today, economists rank us between 13th and 16th among the top 20 nations. Put bluntly: America is in decline.
The fact is that fewer Americans than ever before see themselves doing better than their parents. And they have good reason to think so. Other nations have passed us by in developing their children’s potential. The most recent tests of students in mathematics, reading and science from 65 nations rank American students as 23rd or 24th.
Preparing for the 21st Century
This was also true in the 1990s, but not many were willing to take these statistics seriously. Reactions then, including those of educators, were highly defensive.
Some typical responses: “It’s only the better foreign students who take these tests. Who wants to subject their children to all that rote learning like Indian and Japanese parents? American students may not test well, but they are the most creative in the world.” And I would quip, “But rapidly becoming the most undisciplined.” In any case, few took these reports seriously.
Yet the lack of knowledge and skills among prospective American employees was manifesting itself at an alarming rate in the workplaces of business and industry. A common lament of employers was that “there are plenty of job applicants, but few with the talent we need.”
It was this reality within the business community that gave rise to a sense of urgency. The action that followed as we began the new century was the formation of Talent Force 21. It involved roughly a thousand people in our region. Present space allows for only a handful of its accomplishments to be mentioned, but you can find out more at workforcenetwork.com.
But first, I want to make a slight digression and stress a major frustration that haunts us to this day. You might even call it a failure, at least in light of the ideals and goals we set for ourselves at the turn of the century—fostering a culture of learning, that is, a learning community.
In so doing, I run the risk of being perceived…how shall I say it?…as being a little un-American, a betrayer of the can-do American spirit.
Americans are always supposed to be positive, optimistic and upbeat, and never speak negatively about the nation. Like at the Olympics, we love to chant the nation’s pop motto: “We ARE number one.”
Yet the cultural critic in me says that’s a dangerous idea to live by. Can-do happy talk without disciplined action is a fantasy. It changes nothing.
A Cultural Comment
For the sad fact is that we have become a physically overnourished yet spiritually undernourished nation. One third of adult Americans over the age of 20 are obese. And if overweight Americans are included, the overnourished would total 68 percent of the adult population. That figure, according to the National Institutes of Health, will rise to 80 percent by 2020.
You may be wondering, “What’s an obese and overweight America got to do with a talent force crisis?”
Needless to say, this has a profound cost on businesses and industry. Healthcare costs are six times higher for men and nine times higher for women who are obese. But that’s not why I mention it.
I mention it because all things are connected—especially the mind and the body, or body and soul, if you wish. We are not bifurcated beings. We are not minds trapped in bodies.
I mention it because it may be more of a symptom of something far deeper that has gone awry in American life. We are sedating ourselves with food, overusing and abusing prescription medication, indulging in illegal drugs—simultaneously financing the Mexican drug cartels and the Taliban—and abusing alcohol.
On the other hand, we have become spiritually undernourished in terms of aspirations, self-responsibility, self-improvement, self-restraint, learning, sacrifice for the common good, patriotism, and the list can go on. Perhaps this is due to what the French label as ennui: a boredom, a tediousness, a general anxiety and purposelessness about life itself.
Whatever the reason, spiritual poverty can never beget a talent force. On the contrary, it will sink the nation faster than any terrorist attack. This is a subject worthy of more attention in and of itself. But it is related to the difficulty we have encountered in trying to achieve the primary goal we set for ourselves in 2000 of creating a culture of learning: a learning community.
Talent Force 21
For years, we talked about the talent force crisis. Presentations were made; annual forums were held; we spoke and we wrote, trying to hit the crisis from multiple angles.
Some of our members, like Dr. Gerry Brookhart of the Peoria County Regional Office of Education, brought in national experts to guide us in solutions. Illinois Central College, under the leadership of Dr. John Erwin, created nationally recognized work training and remedial programs.
Yet our greatest frustration was that our sense of urgency for a talent force, unlike the flu, wasn’t being caught by others. We seemed to be stymied. The population as a whole remained nonchalant, unmoved and unworried.
A Lack of Urgency
But why worry? The first two-thirds of this decade was a go-go time. Unemployment rates hovered around four percent, and employers had a hard time finding any employees, never mind talented ones. The markets were skyrocketing. And all the time, America was being lulled into the illusion that prosperity was God’s gift to us forever.
Employees saw little need to upgrade their skills or develop new ones. We spoke about the dangers of mid-age employees not keeping abreast of new technology—that they were unwittingly and incrementally making themselves unemployable. But few had any feel for that. So Talent Force 21 seemed to be a voice crying in the wilderness.
But at long last, coinciding with the beginning of the Great Recession, the urgency bug seemed to be spreading. Business leaders from The Heartland Partnership and Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce got behind the idea of addressing the education of our children, initiating and helping to raise funds for a new charter school, which opened this past year.
The Workforce Board became actively involved with the Community School project in 2007 and established an outreach program at Manual High School. More than 1,500 individuals, half of them residents from the community, have received training and developed new technological skills.
Although not the urgency epidemic we wanted, more and more people were becoming aware. Pockets of action-oriented community leaders and volunteers were picking up the message, getting energized by the urgency of the matter. We started hearing more and more concern about the future of our children and children’s children.
It appeared that we were on the edge of a great awakening.
Yet awakenings don’t happen in a vacuum. It’s the buzzsaw of life experiences that disrupt our way of seeing, hearing and thinking. Usually, it’s only a painful event that has the external force to counter the gravitational habits of mind, heart and action. And so it has been with the Great Recession.
Before we knew what hit us, a tidal wave of change washed away 15 million jobs, of which 10 million went out of existence. The housing market imploded and Americans’ net worth plummeted. No community was spared the deluge.
The Workforce Network found itself responding to and serving a record 28,150 individuals this past year. It hosted spring and fall career fairs, with Midstate College and the Journal Star as major sponsors, in which over 100 businesses participated in offering employment opportunities and information to over 2,000 job seekers.
People were not only starting to see with other eyes, hear with other ears and think with other thoughts, but started feeling something different. It was a new world economic order. Specifically, it was a global, high-tech, talent-based service economy. And it was being driven by consumer demand for customized goods and services.
And customization has become a chief characteristic of the new global order. Consumers are increasingly demanding goods and services that meet their unique interests, desires and needs. And new technology allows this to happen.
On the other hand, rapidly changing technologies bring with them unforeseen and unpredictable changes. It has created a world chock-full of surprises and uncertainty. Some businesses and jobs will become extinct overnight. Some already have. And few then or now liked what they saw and felt.
Rapid and Random Change
Of course, anyone in the business world already knew that surprises and uncertainty were the realities in which one’s business succeeded or failed. At these moments, I recall telling our employees that there are three kinds of organizations: “the ones that make things happen, the ones that watch things happen and the ones that say, ‘What happened?’”
The Workforce Board is one that intends to make things happen. But there are many other organizations—such as The Heartland Partnership, Community Action Agency, Tri-County Urban League, Full Service Community Schools Initiative, Heart of Illinois United Way, the Illinois building and construction trades, and many community churches—that are also trying to make things happen.
All this has been good; all this has been positive; and all this has been an excellent start. And yet, there has been no great awakening in the body politic. A felt sense of crisis and an epidemic of urgency among the larger community do not yet exist.
A Culture of Learning
The first and primary goal laid out in Talent Force 21 at the turn of the century was to create a learning community. A cultural change like this was not something that Talent Force 21 could do on its own. It would require the involvement of the entire community.
Deep culture, in contrast to popular culture, refers to a community’s primary and fundamental habits of thinking, feeling and behaving. To state it more simply: it’s the community’s habits of mind, heart and action. And it’s the kinds of habits that determine a society’s future. In the end, a culture reflects the character of a community, state or nation.
The idea of a learning community was a cultural concept. It was to be a community in which lifelong learning was not just valued and prized but actually practiced and preached.
Some cultures are clearly better than others in that they facilitate the development of our God-given potential; they foster human flourishment. And some are downright toxic in that they are destructive of mind, body and spirit. Cultures aren’t relative, no matter how much one would like them to be.
Talent Force 21’s vision was that a learning community would become the nucleus of America’s competitive advantage in a highly integrated global economy. As previously mentioned, but can’t be stressed enough: We are now living in a post-industrial service economy driven by consumer demand for customized goods and services. And this requires a talent force fleet of mind as well as foot.
The very necessity of a learning community seemed to have an intuitive appeal. We believed that this was the kind of culture needed to effectively cope and adapt to a world of ceaseless and rapid change.
But the concept set few on fire. Yes, it made sense; heads would nod in approval. But beyond a small group, it didn’t stimulate a sense of urgency, the burning platform we hoped for that would engage the entire community. Perhaps it was a solution to a problem that was not yet widely felt.
Just saying that we are living in a highly contingent world—a world of change, randomness and uncertainty—was indeed a fact. But it was a fact with no sex appeal; there was no widespread community emotional arousal to do anything about it.
For facts alone, or information alone, or ideals alone don’t move people to action. Only those ideas that have an emotional component, that are married to a passion, move people to take action.
A Call to Action
How does a society adjust to a world of rapid, ceaseless and unpredictable change? There are only two directions: passively or actively. We can ignore the entire issue and drown ourselves in hours of TV entertainment and video games. And in this, we are the world’s leader; we ARE number one.
Or we can shape our own future and prepare ourselves to tackle whatever comes our way. But this requires developing every American’s knowledge, skills and creativity. America’s comparative advantage would be the fruit of developing the potential of every citizen.
The stakes are high. We either do this or our children and children’s children will lose, and lose badly. The choice is ours to make today.
So I would like to call upon you, the iBi readers, to accept a common charge, a personal responsibility and a shared duty. And it is this: Tell others what’s at stake for America. Don’t merely inform them—inspire them with your own passion to participate in creating that learning community. Infect them with a sense of urgency; touch them, sneeze on them if you must, do whatever it takes to infect them.
Our goal is to create a learning community in which lifelong learning is valued and prized and a natural expectation of social life. One’s learning and skills are never completed upon the receipt of a certificate or a degree, whether in the trades or professions. Lifelong learning is the only way to remain competent in a world where the standards of excellence are ratcheted up daily.
Forging new habits of mind, heart and action among our fellow citizens is not easy. But this is the only kind of culture that can generate prosperity for all. It’s the only kind of culture that can enable us to cope and adapt to the new world order.
In the end, all national issues must be solved locally. We can’t do much for Providence, Rhode Island, or Los Angeles, California. It’s here where we must begin. Washington and Springfield can’t help us unless we first help ourselves.
The more everyone talks about the necessity of lifelong learning, the more it becomes a social expectation—and the more our children will get the message. And when that becomes the norm, we will have become that learning community.
The point is that a culture doesn’t happen willy-nilly. We created it and we can change it. It all starts with us. The future of our America depends upon it. iBi
John F. Gilligan, PhD, is president emeritus of Fayette Companies and co-chair of the Talent Force 21 Initiative of the Central Illinois Workforce Board.