Graduation is the start of a life of learning

June 11, 2020
Lifelong learning goes hand-in-hand with rapid technological changes and other upheavals

I don't know about you, but as soon as I got to be about 50 years old, I was suddenly hip deep in a parade of graduates. I'm guessing the same must be true for many of you. Children, nephews, nieces, kids of friends, etc.—each finishing high school and then college in one more blink—leaving me and all parents wondering where the time went. I still don't know what you call children of cousins.

Just like everyone, I know this year's ceremonies are mostly remote, online or virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, these events are just as momentous as any other year, and maybe even more worth celebrating because of the extreme challenges that so many students, teachers, parents and families had to overcome to make them happen.

However, maybe it's because these milestones are flying due to my old-guy outlook, but I seem to perceive graduations less as an end of school days, and more as a beginning of work. Again, this is certainly due to my personal orientation, but I also know it's because "work" means a continuing and widening series of training and retraining classes thanks to today's rapidly evolving technologies and professional disciplines.

This typically begins long before graduation when college freshmen learn that many of their advanced placement (AP) credits won't carry over from high school because their colleges want them to take its introductory courses—and preserve tuition revenue. However, it really picks up after they graduate, and are hired for their first jobs. The usual phase I've heard applied to every technical position is, "Congratulations on your degree, but now we want to teach you how we do things."

Granted, much instruction is needed to gain basic technical competence, and enable operators, technicians, engineers and managers to do their jobs. However, even of they progress from rookies to veterans, and achieve some level of mastery, new technologies, techniques, job descriptions and project scopes put them right back in class. When minimally invasive surgery took off in the early 1990s, I remember doing a profile of a Yale medical school professor, who enjoyed putting surgeons though his grueling boot camp, which taught them to go beyond crudely sucking out gall bladders to the more delicate skill of sewing together the ends of arteries using just two cables.

Even experts at the pinnacles of their professions apparently can't escape or really ever get done with school. Years earlier, I interviewed a suburban Chicago fire chief, who was a long-time board member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). As I recall, he was a legendary figure, who developed much of the content and curriculum used to teach other fire chiefs and firefighters nationwide. However, to carry out this mission and stay on top of his subjects, he had to learn and research even more than the colleagues for whom he developed instructional materials.

Not only do we never get off the hamster wheel as students, we eventually drive it and even become it as teachers.

You can see where this is headed. As process automation and control has progressed from hardware to microprocessor-fueled software, and from point-to-point hardwiring to fieldbuses, Ethernet, wireless, the Internet, edge and cloud computing, every step has been accompanied by instruction that users need to employ them. These and other forms of digitalization will no doubt streamline many formerly cumbersome programming, operations and maintenance tasks, but someone still has to learn how to deploy them.

In my case, I remember that I was never very good at the early book reports I was assigned in fifth grade. However, I recently realized it's basically what I've been doing ever since. I guess it's just lucky I enjoy interviewing people and redistributing their useful information. This may be the secret: since school never ends, try make sure what you have to learn is something you're truly interested in.

So, definitely take time to recognize, honor and celebrate all the graduates in your life, especially now. Just remember the equally famous Hollywood phrase, "It's great you won that Oscar last night, but what have you done for me lately?," and get back to class tomorrow.

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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