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louis vuitton large tote Red Clay Readers examine Depression-era attitudes toward education, how they translate today

By the time we reached our front steps Walter had forgotten he was a Cunningham. Jem ran to the kitchen and asked Calpurnia to set an extra plate, we had company. Atticus greeted Walter and began a discussion about crops neither Jem nor I could follow.

Reason I can t pass the first grade, Mr. Finch, is I ve had to stay out ever spring an help Papa with the choppin , but there s another n at the house now that s field size.

This simple exchange speaks volumes not just about life in Harper Lee's fictional Maycomb but about the reality of life in Depression-era communities across the nation.

Walter might be Jem s age, but his circumstances have prioritized survival above education, rendering him Scout s first-grade classmate yet a conversational equal to Atticus at the lunch table.

While shocking, perhaps, to some readers unable to even fathom working in fields much less being expected to sacrifice self-gain and improvement for household benefit, Walter s story was far more commonplace than one might expect among the group that went on to be dubbed the Greatest Generation.

Listening to my own grandparents preach the importance of an education and the opportunities it creates, I was always intrigued by the sheer number in their generation who accomplished so much with so little in the way of a formal education.

I ve also always believed the onset of World War II even before the implementation of the G.I. Bill played a huge role in reshaping our nation s educational system and giving birth to the precursor of modern-day workforce development programs.

Aside from the real-world education so many of that generation gained by necessity, military service often provided skills not then taught in many classrooms and prepared them for real-world jobs once the war ended.

Consider this excerpt from , senior associate director, director of the library and archives, and a research fellow at Stanford University s Hoover Institute, about the legacy of that era s blue-collar workers.

After the war, they came home wiser and with a purpose: to protect what they d fought for and sacrificed for. They became the Little League and CYO coaches and stay-at-home moms for moonlighting husbands as, collectively, they built a country and raised the largest cohort of children in human history, writes Sousa, an economist specializing in human capital, discrimination, labor economics and K 12 education.

In addition to enduring this country s greatest economic catastrophe and fighting two wars, they went on to work at Leviton and Boeing, they built homes and raised families in Omaha and Bakersfield. They put a man on the moon! They were carpenters, teachers, welders, Fuller Brush men. But, most important, they wove the fabric that made the United States great. They gave their children safe and secure homes; they exemplified a solid work ethic and belief in America; they instilled in their children the value of education, Sousa writes.

And that raises yet another question: Have subsequent generations lost that against-all-odds drive so prevalent among even the most minor character s in Harper Lee s Maycomb?

Workforce development experts contend it s more an issue of less proficient soft skills among current job candidates than desire to succeed or flat-out gumption.

This is the theme we hear time and again from every single one of our clusters. The conversation always comes back to what we re now calling essential skills like work ethic, motivation, taking responsibility and being on time, said Laura Chandler, executive director of the Southwest Alabama Workforce Development Council in Mobile.

Fortunately, she said, the business and education communities are actively working to bridge this skills gap, starting as early as the high school level and reinforcing it actively with the region s multitude of two-year institutions and technical training programs, and similar programs are gaining momentum statewide.

In fact, the Alabama Community College System Chancellor Mark Heinrich said poor workplace skills among younger workers have been cited as the primary reason for termination of as many as 85 percent of cases, depending on the research cited.

You may just expect that a young person will grow up and know how to shake hands, but that s not always the case, Heinrich said. Not everyone understands that you need to show up on time, how to dress appropriately for the job or how to get along with others at work.

In turn, the system s Ready-to-Work program now provides soft skills training for adults who are not enrolled in college and have limited education and employment experience and plans to launch a similar pilot program designed to prepare college students for the realities of the workplace.

During the 2013 program year, alone, the Ready-to-Work program served 1,400 students, helping nearly 650 of them secure employment and nearly 200 others to enroll in college to further their education. The program is run in partnership with the Alabama Industrial Development Training program and the Governor s Office of Workforce Development.

Heinrich, who recently chaired the soft skills subcommittee of Gov. Robert Bentley s College and Career Ready Task Force, said his goal is to help students understand that both technical and interpersonal skills are critical for success in the workplace.

We've found through the years that most individuals, if they know that these are important, they are very eager to learn and incorporate those into their skill sets, he said in .'s Red Clay Readers, in partnership with the Alabama Center for Literary Arts, is a book club designed to take a fresh look at a southern classic with the help of our readers. Today we look at Chapters 9 and 10 of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Click to get 20 percent off your copy of the book at Books-a-Million.

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