“When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty odd years

“Then they expect you to pick a career”

- John Lennon, “Working Class Hero” 

When my oldest boys were growing up in the small town of Industry just outside Farmington, the coolest kids were the ones whose fathers had the biggest toys. Pickups, dump trucks, skidders and — the real king of the hill — a makeshift dealership in a muddy field by the side of the house filled with bright colored cars and big machines. Kids, at least the boys, knew what they wanted to be when they grew up because they had lots of very engaging examples all around them. Forests, fields, lakes, streams and the mills that had thrived for a century along them provided a wide range of role models for career aspirations.

Since that time, globalization has eliminated many of those jobs, drawn many of the young boys away and left far fewer role models for those who remain. I have often argued in this space that the educational institutions and business establishments that existed for so long in close proximity but with only superficial relationships need — in the age of information — to develop much closer, more explicit, contacts. Other than a few remote boy billionaire software developers, there are few well publicized examples at hand of what kids can be when they grow up. How are kids to aspire to be something with no obvious role models to emulate? How long can businesses whine “I can’t find candidates with the skills I need” before they figure out that they better provide some examples of what they’re talking about?

Fortunately, more and more businesses and trade associations are getting the message. Navigating the Real World (NtRW.org) “helps people in their teens and 20s deal with important life decisions . . . by bringing them the perspectives of people with recent, relevant experience directly related to their personal priorities and prospective future paths.” Project Login (projectlogin.com) is a program created by Maine businesses to help young people and adult learners “get engaged, get educated and get employed.” The Portland school system recently launched a new program called “Pathways to Success” (http://www2.portlandschools.org/pathways-success), “a remodeling of the educational system to meet the demands of 21st century life.” This program will host a College and Career Expo next Friday at the Abromson Center at the Universtiy of Southern Maine for all juniors at Portland and Deering high schools “to learn about career opportunities at Maine companies and the training needed to prepare for those jobs.”

Great ideals, high expectations, broad involvement, movement in the right direction. Having worked with Linda Abromson on the Governor’s Commission on Education Reform back in the 1980s, I know she would be thrilled to see these efforts beginning in a room dedicated to her memory. But success depends not on enthusiastic beginnings but stubborn perseverance. Whether young people today have been tortured and scared, filled with a digital diet of unrealistic athletic and celebrity role models, or simply been left to fend for themselves without any examples of lives to which they might aspire, the point remains — young human beings are great imitators. If we as a society wish people to behave in civil, compassionate, intelligent, responsible ways, we as adults must provide models.

When growing up and working weren’t so greatly separated, both geographically and emotionally, we didn’t have to think too much about that modeling. It occurred naturally. Today, it’s much harder to accomplish. It requires far more than a “take your son or daughter to work” day once a year.

All of these examples of ways to address this “aspirations problem” deserve our support and our suggestions. Get out to the Abromson Center; give an interview to Navigating the Real World; login to Project Login. There are plenty of very exciting role models in Maine. We need to do a far better job of presenting them to our children. 

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be reached at:

clawton@planning decisions.com