On excellence: Back to the homework

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ONE SUMMERwhile I was in my teens, I visited a friend on Cape Cod. Her father, a surgeon, would invariably slip into his study after supper to read up on the operations he was to perform the next morning.

I still remember my surprise. Homework was the bane of my existence (and that of most of my peers). I had assumed that the end of schooling meant blessed relief from doing homework. The doc shook my confidence.

In fact, that surgeon was the exception 30 years ago, and still is today. But things had better change, whether for senior staff professionals or junior clerks, if they want to stay employed and to be more marketable next year at this time.

An old-timer I know recently was lamenting the laying- off of a 23-year veteran purchasing employee. 'Not to worry,' a colleague advised, only half in jest. 'We didn't lose 23 years of experience. We lost one year, repeated 22 times.'

Sad to say, the cynic was probably correct. Most purchasing and marketing 'professionals' do all too little homework. Sure, they thumb through a few trade journals and attend an annual convention. But have they really committed themselves to a yearly learning leap? Will they be more savvy, in a demonstrable way, at the end of 1993 than they were at the end of 1992? All too often, the answer to both questions is no.

Tomorrow's economy is about brains. These days, the mind that is standing still is, in fact, slipping backwards down the competitive ladder. And fast. Work in the 'factory' (tomorrow's factory will be a home to brainwork, not heavy lifting) will be done mostly in project teams striving to improve productivity, quality, service, and this or that process.

The new gold standard will be curiosity, learning, creativity and the willingness to embrace constant change. Supple minds will be more important than supple joints.

No one is exempt. Clerical workers in Pittsburgh could easily find today's work shifted tomorrow to South Dakota or the Republic of Ireland (as it has been already by many an insurance company, for instance). How do these workers defend themselves?

Homework, dummy] With or without the support of their firms, they had better be adding skills - learning new spreadsheets or softwar for file management; volunteering to work from the bottom up in marketing or on projects to improve quality. Mainly, the enhanced skills up the odds that they will keep their jobs with today's employer. But even if the department is farmed out, at least they are better prepared to tackle an ever tougher job market.

The biggest social issue facing the US is the growing gap between the wages of the haves and the have-nots. In an age of brains, those who don't develop their full above-the-shoulders potential, and then keep adding to it, are losing out - and losing big.

One answer lies with government. Among other things, legislators should support college access for all, and establish robust training and retraining incentives for companies and individuals. But progress in cash-strapped legislatures will be glacial.

That leaves one answer: personal initiative. I urge every worker, boss, blue-collar job holder and last year's elite university graduate to do the following for themselves:

Prepare your resume. Take stock of your skills through the eyes of a prospective employer. What do you know (for sure)? Are your skills clearly state of the art? How have you specifically demonstrated mastery of new skills in the past year?

Set explicit learning goals for 1993. Map out, on your own or with your boss (if amenable), how to get there from here. Be immodest in your long-term aims, realistic in your first steps. If you haven't been near a classroom in a while, start with a single course. And, if necessary, swallow your pride and take remedial courses in writing or math to regain lost ground.

Keep in mind that this is a marathon, not a sprint. The tricks are the same as for getting in shape or losing weight: take it a day at a time. The need is urgent. But getting back into the homework habit is the big first step.

Make it a family or network affair. That is, it will help to have a support group. This new outlook on life and career should be exciting, but it also means adding to your doubtless overcrowded schedule. You are going to need a couple of quiet hours, two or three evenings a week, as well as time to cram for exams every few months.

Remember, it's up to you. Companies that don't encourage employee education of all kinds are dumb. If you are in a dumb company and can't orwon't move, so be it. This is your life, not GE's or McDonald's. In the end (and perhaps not so long from now), it's you who must 'pass' or 'fail' the employability test.

Like it or not, welcome back to the age of homework.

Copyright TPG Communications

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