“You shouldn’t come around here singing up at people like that

Anyway what you gonna do about it?”

– Dire Straits, “Romeo and Juliet”

 

I am frequently accused of being an idealist.

“Nice idea,” I’m often told, “in theory, but how could it work in practice? Where’s the beef? Show me where it’s happening.”

I confess, such critics are often correct. Talk is cheap. Ideas don’t change the world; ideas put into practice change the world. Invention is nice; but innovation is what we need – putting ideas into practice to create something useful. And practice is difficult, fitful, a “two steps forward, one step back” sort of thing.

One idea I’ve explored in recent weeks is the dysfunctional and largely self-serving separation between the world of education and the world of employment.

We’ve built multibillion-dollar institutions to prepare our children to be capable, productive members of society and responsible citizens. And we’ve built another set of multibillion-dollar enterprises to produce and distribute the goods and services we want. But we spend precious little time or money on, and have few organizations devoted to, the process of linking the two.

“Hey nah,” you say, “whatcha gonna do about it?”

The best I can do is to tell the stories of some of the pioneers toiling along the frontier between the world of education and the world of employment in hopes that others will join them and help push the innovation process along.

One pioneer is Doug Drew, guidance counselor at Portland High School. He’s dragged the guidance process out from perusal of college catalogs and into the workplace. He’s created a yearlong course devoted to bringing high school students into area businesses such as PowerPay and Unum, where they see what goes on in the workplace and get “up close and personal” demonstrations of the sorts of knowledge, skills and attitudes needed by successful employees.

On the other side, business owners, managers and line employees come into the high school both to introduce students to the businesses they will visit and get a first-hand view of the learning environment in which students spend most of their days.

Doug’s pilot program is a laboratory for testing models for innovation in the most important transition process now facing our state, indeed our nation. Here’s hoping it keeps chugging along and spawns lots of imitators.

Another pioneer is Tom Tracy, founder and operator of Navigating the Real World, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping people in their teens and 20s deal with important life decisions and challenging circumstances by bringing them the perspectives of people with recent, relevant experience directly related to their personal priorities and prospective future paths.

Like Doug, Tom is a boundary crosser and a connector. Operating in print, video and on the Web, he has built a collection of thousands of interviews conducted by himself and participating students with people just slightly older and more experienced.

Through this vehicle, Tom has built a searchable archive of stories told by those who have just crossed the education-work frontier. Like letters to Eastern sisters from Gold Rush brides, these missives offer those about to step across the frontier some first-hand knowledge about life on the other side.

We can only hope that this information helps make the passage less painful and more productive. And I hope that more and more people on both sides of the border find, use and improve Tom’s innovation so that the frontier becomes less alien and threatening.

Finally, I love the story of Dana Humphrey, dean of Maine’s College of Engineering, and his work with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE).

Recognizing the tremendous need we have for engineers and the opportunities lost to women turned off by or diverted from a traditionally male occupation, Dana has worked with SWE to create a K-12 outreach program to bring the excitement, challenge and opportunities of engineering to girls throughout Maine.

His effort promotes visits by engineers to schools across Maine, a variety of Web and social media portals linking girls and engineering, and annual programs at the Orono campus for talented girls. And the effort seems to be succeeding, because both the absolute number and relative share of women in entering classes has been rising over the past several years.

Maine needs a new song of innovation. These pioneers are stepping out of the shade into the streetlight and singing to opportunity something like, “You and me babe, how ’bout it?”

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]