Learning and would-be just-in-time workers

[One] of the key components of JIT is to reduce waste and add value. There are several activities that a company must monitor as targets for reducing waste. Among these are, excessive waste times, inflated inventories, unneeded people or material movement, unnecessary processing steps, numerous variabilities throughout a firm's activities and any other non-value adding activity.

The model Canadian worker - the one we spent the better part of the 1990s normalizing - is a highly skilled, highly mobile worker. He or she possesses solid literacy and numeracy skills, is competent with a personal computer, and is able to solve complex or multi-step problems. That is to say, they are both easy and inexpensive to train and retrain.

By the way, they also have little in the way of geographic and social roots, are raising children who change schools and neighbourhoods every three to four years, and depend on national or transnational sources of cultural and information (CBC, CTV, the Internet) rather than local sources. They are as much at home in Winnipeg as they are in Bridgewater. But they, and their families, are also as much strangers in Winnipeg as they are in Bridgewater. And, unless they work in the local service industry, their children will almost certainly grow up to find jobs Someplace Else.

But all that's a by-product to the just-in-time workforce. It's extra. Outside the focus and concern of the new, lean marketplace.

Also outside are the people who don't fit into this model. These are men and women who are not mobile or who cannot respond quickly and successfully to new learning demands. These are Canadians who can work happily, productively, all of their lives in jobs of greater or lesser complexity - but who cannot pick up, on demand, and go live someplace else to do a different kind of job.

For some, the apparent challenges may be financial or medical. For others, the apparent challenges may be cognitive or emotional. In either case, these are not ideal workers - not ideal members of Canada's working class - and they would seem to present a social problem.

I'm calling these "apparent challenges" because poor health or cognitive challenges or a big family aren't really the cause of the difficulty. I say it seems to be a social problem because it is our social agencies and social-work-styled non-profits who are charged with helping these citizens.

But the real challenge is purely economic. It is our cultural and political decision to base our economy, in large part, on a geographically flexible workforce which can be quickly and effectively relocated and retrained in order to reduce costs and maximize profits.

We decided - we, Canadians (in our last half-dozen federal elections if nowhere else) - that we would allow the development of an economic structure that excluded many of our neighbours.

This is why we have the apparent paradox of high numbers of under- or unemployed workers, and businesses saying they can't find people to hire. Businesses mean they can't find the "right kind" of workers. Meanwhile, our unemployed search in vain for work they can do that makes financial and familial sense.

It's also why, in this field, we have seen increased political and financial support for Workplace Essential Skills (the skills that make us perpetually trainable) and Life-long Learning, at the expense of, say, family and community literacies. It's why, each year, I meet more individuals coming to get their education, get their GED, get their WES in the determined or desperate hope of finding work.

What work? Where? Who knows!

What they do know - what ABC Canada among others is fully committed to teaching us - is that their troubles begin and end with education. These people come, and I meet them, and I spend the weeks or months needed to help them gain a realistic assessment of their abilities and their likelihood of success in an engineering program, or in medical school, or.... That is to say, they fail to pass the GED - or even approach GED level work - and accept their failure. Then they go away, almost certainly worse off than before they came.

It's not pleasant. And it's not made easier by learning disability specialists who urge us to use special devices or techniques - as though the same adaptive learning environment will be present in the workplace, or even in the job interview. It's not made easier by the prescriptions that allow them to come - drugs that cheer them up, but cloud their minds and slow their responses. Can I make a place for them in my program? Of course! I care about them, and so I make the best place I can. But the accommodations I make won't help them when they go to sit the GED tests, or go through a job interview, or get hired and then have to deal with a lay-off and relocation.

There are, in Saint John, a few employers who still hire people with a variety of skills and aptitudes for long-term jobs. But these good citizens are too far and few between, and the economy is not kind to them. Meantime, more people search in vain for a place to fit. Saint John is New Brunswick's largest industrial center, and it offers more social programming and support on a per captia basis than anyplace else in the province. That means the city is a magnet for people and families who struggle to fit in. I know because someone keeps sending them to me.

For many, "fitting in" comes to mean accepting a life on social assistance, with all the disempowerment and cynicism that implies. Here, too, we tend to blame the victims for making reasonable economic choices for themselves and their children. But, again, it's really the economic system that's to blame.

Worse, the system itself is a failure, and it is becoming increasingly costly to prop up. Whether in the $500,000 the NB government is spending on yet another promotion of the ideal of life-long learning, or in the $500,000 the government just gave to J.D. Irving to keep one of his mills open, this dream of the movable, retrainable, just-in-time worker is costing us public money.

And there's little you or I can do in an adult learning classroom to change it.

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