At a press conference during a recent state visit to France, President Donald Trump thanked his host, French President Emmanuel Macron, and said, “France is America’s first and oldest ally. A lot of people don’t know that.”
He followed that up with, “France helped us secure our independence, a lot of people forget.” What was that you heard? That was the thunderous clap of America’s history teachers slapping their foreheads in unison.
Forgive them their frustration. This is American History 101. During the long years of the American Revolution, it was France that provided cash as well as troops and ships under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette to aid the struggling young nation.
Now, before I go too far, my intent is not a political one. I’ve studiously avoided writing about politics in Chief Learning Officer. That’s not because I don’t have opinions. I’ve got a few.
Rather, there simply hasn’t been much coming out of Washington that’s of consequence for the work of CLOs. Outside of a brief mention about apprenticeships, the biggest education news happened when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said during her Senate confirmation hearing that we need guns in schools to control the rampaging bear problem that is apparently keeping our students from their studies.
That crazy story was quickly overshadowed by wave after wave of news about the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the election to repeated efforts by Congressional Republicans to repeal Obamacare and tales of internal drama at the White House.
Through it all, CLOs simply go about their job despite the Game of Thrones in the nation’s capital. Diligently and without drama, they ensure employees up and down the organization have the tools, information and skills to carry out the organization’s mission.
But back to the French revelation. It would be easy to brush off the president’s comment as a joke if he didn’t have past form. It’s not the first time he seemed to express genuine surprise at information many Americans already know.
At an event for African-American History Month, he said abolitionist and civil rights pioneer Frederick Douglass “is being recognized more and more” even though Douglass’ autobiography of his amazing journey from slave to President Abraham Lincoln’s confidant is required reading for students of history and literature.
And of course, who knew health care reform could be so complicated? Not the president but it’s a safe bet that the 600,000-plus doctors, 3 million or so nurses and the legion of insurance and care providers who work in the $3 trillion industry did. And, of course, there are the legislators and policymakers who have been laboring at it for decades.
But none of that changes the fact that the president is actually right. Not a lot of people do know about the French role in the American Revolution, nor do they know much about history in general. According to one survey, less than 20 percent of college graduates could identify what effect Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had on the nation.
It’s not just knowledge of history that is lacking. Half of U.S. employers think college graduates are not adequately prepared for their post-collegiate careers, according to a 2016 survey by PayScale.
Herein lies a golden opportunity for CLOs to insert themselves, not into politics, but into education policy. There was a time in the not too distant past when a young person could acquire a skill and fashion a lifelong career out of it. No longer.
The generation entering the workforce now will likely go through three or even four significant career changes in their working lives. That fact, along with the existence of the skills gap, means employers need to play a much more direct role in pre-employment education.
Beyond educating your current workforce, get involved in local workforce development groups that are working to address the skills gap. Get in touch with community colleges and universities to see how you can work together. Reach deep into the pool of future talent by getting involved in STEM programs.
For a role that laments its lack of a seat at the table, closing the skills gap provides a stellar opportunity for CLOs to be strategic. Your employer needs you to do it. The workforce needs it. The economy as a whole can benefit from your involvement.
That might be information not a lot of people know. But they should. And that includes the president.