As my fifth grade daughter heads toward elementary school graduation this Spring (sniff, sniff) and into the big world of middle school, I’ve realized how much she’s learned since kindergarten in reading, writing, and arithmetic. But this year her teachers decided to give her a lesson in something most adults hope never to have to deal with—unemployment.
Depending on which parents you talk to, schools today are either too cushy (constantly worrying about whether kids are happy and not feeling anxious) or too demanding (with constant testing and less and less outdoor playtime). Whether you want more cushion or more rigor, all parents want their children to learn the skills they will need to get a job instead of a permanent spot on the basement couch after college. The program at my daughter’s school is a positive way to teach kids about some of the “realities” they will face in the competitive job market, realities such as what it takes to get a job offer, what it means to have to learn new skills over time, how to take responsibility and be an effective team member, and the vagaries of earning (and spending) money.
Every other week, my daughter comes home with a job application on which she has to indicate which classroom job she wants and explain why she is a good fit for that job. Her teachers expect her to list her qualifications and relevant experience and demonstrate how she could add value to the classroom while performing the job. Whether you are an “office runner,” “housekeeper,” or “materials manager,” each job helps the classroom run smoothly throughout the day. It is a lesson in cooperative reliance. And just like in the real world, all jobs are not created equal in terms of earning potential. Each job carries a different weekly wage—from $2 to $20. This creates competition for the higher paying jobs (just like in the real job market) and forces the students to learn how to highlight their own unique experiences and potential to the teacher (a.k.a. the hiring manager).
For example, my daughter indicated on her “housekeeper” application that she was neat, organized, and orderly. In fact, she included snapshots of her recently tidied desk drawers as evidence. When applying for “materials manager” she noted how she was “quick and careful” and would treat the materials with utmost respect and caution. A friend’s daughter, Ella, when applying to be “line leader” told the teacher she would be “perfect for this job” because she had an “air of authority” and a track record of being able to get people to follow her. There was also her knowledge of the school industrial complex: “I know my way around and won’t get lost!”
Students then use their weekly earnings to pay rent to the teacher (with late fees if applicable), and budget their money well enough that they have discretionary funds to buy small trinkets (such as colorful pens or erasers) if they choose or money to rent a particular item in the classroom (like a big fluffy chair).
But here’s the sobering glitch . . . there are a limited number of classroom jobs available every two weeks and not everyone will be employed during that time. There will always be a few students who are unemployed and unable to earn enough money to pay the rent or spend on what they want. Talk about real-world grown-up problems and about not being able to make everything perfectly equal in life!
As an executive and career coach who has been interviewing and recruiting talent for over twenty years, I can safely say that demonstrating all of these points to a potential employer is difficult for most adults and the learning curve can be a lot steeper as you attempt to transition to a new career. Learning early to understand and appreciate your worth and how you can best contribute and demonstrate your value in the workplace is a crucial skill to build and carry with you throughout your career.
This creative program is teaching my daughter not just basic economics but also vital career skills that every generation of workers should understand but which all too many graduates today don’t ever learn: the ability to demonstrate “on paper” the skills and experience you can bring to a potential employer, how to match your qualifications to a suitable (and possibly fulfilling) position, how to work effectively with people of different skills performing different tasks at different times, how to be a contributing team member and not just an individual star, and how to quickly come up to speed on new and changing job responsibilities and the challenges that may bring. I wish we all could have learned these skills in elementary school.