The Education Gap

Sept. 1, 2019

Getting to the heart of why we do what we do.

The blank looks—20 or so of them, all in unison—were surprising to me. After all, it should’ve been the easiest question I asked of them all semester.

Why does journalism matter?

These students, hoodies over their heads, faces half-hiding behind laptops went silent, or simply sipped from their Starbucks cup (the coffees they bought on the way to class that likely were the culprit for them being roughly eight minutes late) giving quick glances around the room, waiting for a classmate to save them from being called on.

This was a magazine writing class I teach at the University of Minnesota, right down the street from our St. Paul, Minn., NOLN offices. These were students paying (far too much) money to take this course. This, supposedly, is their chosen field, career and passion. Yet … silence. I started calling on students at random. The answers were off the mark. I assured them that there is, in fact, a correct answer to this question.

And this became a giant “ah-ha” moment for me.

Let’s back up a moment here, and I’d just like to point out that you and I are not as different as you might think; at least, we face very similar obstacles in our fields: the skepticism that surrounds our professions, the required training and unique skill sets required to achieve success (or to reach even a bare-minimum starting point), and the drastic shortage of qualified, young people entering these industries. For plenty of reasons, we both face talent gaps, and finding the people we need to be successful is not a simple task. And, far too often, taking on the newly trained, fresh-out-of-school employee leaves us with a perplexed feeling of disillusionment for the educational systems nurturing our industries’ talent.

So, back to that “ah-ha” moment: These students, despite all their good intentions , their desire to succeed, their increasing knowledge of how to perform work, don’t understand why their work matters. Because of that, they struggle to understand how to take their new, tangible skills and bring that to a real-world setting. There’s a gap. There’s nothing truly linking them from their coursework to the impact they will have when they graduate and find a job.

Both journalism and auto repair matter, and they matter because of the impact the fields have on the people they serve. That impact is why we do what we do—and make sure we do it correctly each and every time. It’s why details matter. It’s why accuracy and quality matter. It’s why new team members
following processes and putting pride in their work matters. Gaps in performance rarely come from a lack of talent or knowledge; too often, it’s due to a lack of understanding why performing a certain task a certain way truly matters.

And that’s on us to explain and to fix. I’m as guilty of falling short on this as anyone, and we all have work to do. We can look at the perceived talent gaps in our industries and in our educational systems as a hindrance, or we can look at it as an opportunity to fill a void that will make our operations more successful and create a stronger, lasting impact on our end users. Personally, I don’t want to see any more blank faces when I ask a very simple, yet important, question. And that’s on me to fix.