Schools get Fresno back to the basics: tackling the "Why work?" dilemma

As the entitlement state grows and Universal Basic Income becomes a prevalent talking point, the conversation about jobs starts at our schools.

A new school year is here, and kids all across Fresno are studying hard.

Their future beckons. But will work be a part of that future?


It’s a question that in one way or another drives all of public policy in Fresno.

Sally Fowler, Fresno Unified’s executive officer for college and career readiness, was kind enough this summer to dig into that issue with me.

The interview revolved around two questions. I give you an executive summary of Fowler’s answers.

What is work?

Fowler: “It sounds so simple – but a multitude of definitions. Depending on your age, work is very different. Is it a career? Is it a job? Is it just a task that you are completing?

“When I look at our graduate profile, I want to break it all the way down to the most minimal task. Do you do it with gusto? Do you take initiative? Do you persevere when it gets hard to do? Do you complete it? And if you do complete it, how did you define ‘complete?’

“We often use the term ‘working at it.’ You’ve got to do a good job. And it’s confusing for kids. When I’ve been in front of elementary (school) kids and I ask them, ‘What’s a job? What’s a career?’ – the answers are varied. There’s just a vast amount of difference among those kids, depending on: Do they come from a family that has two parents that work? Do they come from a family where no one at home is working? Do they come from a family where they have a different kind of occupation, or are the occupations they’re familiar with the standard occupations you see day to day?

“(What is work) is a tough one to define. I can describe my work. I might even be able to describe your work now that we’ve met and talked. But to explain to someone who has never worked before….”

Fowler at this point described how she helps instill a work ethic in her young granddaughter. Brush your teeth. Make your bed. Do your homework.

“I tell her, ‘This is your work right now.’ I want her to learn the value of work. I want her to learn to persist.”

Why work?

Fowler: “There’s intrinsic value to work. When you work, it’s a positive feeling. It provides health.

“When you look at it from an income perspective, if you get paid to do work, you might want to do more work so you can get more money. And you might make the connection of how it helps other people. It helps your family.

“Some jobs provide benefits. You can get things like health benefits. You could take care of your teeth. You could get a physical. You could get medicine when you don’t feel good.”

Fowler paused. The nature of her answer changed. She moved from the listing of work’s material benefits to a review of work’s psychological rewards. She spoke of an animated movie in which the lead character caused a societal revolution when he decided to work instead of loaf. She spoke of a neighbor, an empty nester, who decided it was better to find a job than sit in a lonely house. She spoke of the pride of effort and the courage of risk-takers in the job market.

“If you don’t do these things,” Fowler told me, “then life falls apart.”

Fowler is a gracious and talented public servant. I blindsided her with those two questions – “What is work?” and “Why work?” Yet, despite no time for preparation, she delivered solid answers.

I asked the questions because I think it’s time for Fresno leaders in the public and private sectors to tackle them. They haven’t because, in my opinion, the leaders assume it’s still 1957 when everyone in town just naturally knew the answers.

We in Fresno spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars every year on education and workforce training. Yet, we remain one of the poorest regions in the nation.

We talk about everything except “What is work?” and “Why work?” In a world where the entitlement state only grows and the Universal Basic Income is sure to become a more topical issue, to ask such questions may soon be politically incorrect.

Fowler said to me: “My husband and I told our kids: ‘One success leads to another. So, let’s figure out how to get you one success.’”

I took her point to be: You get that first success by showing up for work.

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