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Finding Common Purpose

What does it actually mean to have a social contract for the 21st century? That’s the question I found myself asking after speaking with Kevin Dowling. You met him in another recent post, although not by name. He and I first crossed paths at a “Future of Work” event at which I was a panelist, where he told me about his experience going from high school to culinary school—but ended up dropping out with debt, depression, and little hope.

Yet, Kevin’s story is not a simple one of falling off along the pathway between high school and college and on his way to what he hoped would be a good-paying job doing something he loved. He had the kind of support anyone his age would want. 

Kevin is 25 years old and lives in the Boston suburb where he attended high school. He describes his family life as “pretty perfect” when he was a teenager. He enjoyed plenty of family support and a stable life: two parents, still together, with great jobs. His story has me digging deeper into the roles and responsibilities of the institutions with which he interacted and his own obligations to stay on the pathway.

A self-described introvert while in high school, he wasn’t particularly connected with his teenage peers, and in school he wasn’t interested in most subjects. He was, though, drawn to two: history and home economics. In the latter, he says, “I could cook things and eat things.” He was also fascinated by the connections between history and cooking, and between his sophomore and junior years, he started to explore different cultures and began cooking their cuisines.

As he got closer to high school’s end, with passing but not excellent grades, he spoke with two guidance counselors about what to do next. “It was hard to tell them everything I was going through and what I wanted to do. But they suggested I go to Johnson & Wales.” 

The College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University, in Providence, Rhode Island, is consistently ranked in the top-10 culinary schools in the United States. The counselors called it a “best bet” for Kevin. He applied early and nowhere else, and once he was accepted in December for the following year, he “kind of just blew off senior year.”

Kevin describes his school experience as “incredible. It was almost like the military, too. Each cooking class was six hours long. It was really awesome. I learned a lot.” But there was one aspect that didn’t sit well. At Johnson & Wales, Kevin says, “all the teachers were always pushing us to get a job now, while we’re in school.” Others did that—“they could go to school, get all the classes done, and work at the same time, but my brain just doesn’t work like that,” he says. 

Kevin had arrived at Johnson & Wales with no experience working in the restaurant industry. “All of my peers came into the program with prior experience and all of them seemed much more focused on the kinds of jobs they were seeking”. The summer between his sophomore and junior years, Kevin got a job in a restaurant on Cape Cod through a “friend of a friend.” Because of that “in” there wasn’t much of an interview and he didn’t even have to work the obligatory one day restaurants typically require to see whether someone is qualified; he was pretty much just shown the kitchen and told when to show up. 

“It was my first real taste of a cooking job,” Kevin says, “and it was extreme—60 or 70 hours a week, and I was pretty much alone. Wake up each morning, just go to work, and repeat.”

That experience was not a positive one as he headed back for his junior year. He continued to watch other students juggle studies and work, but didn’t think he was capable of doing both at the same time.” That realization contributed to his depression: “I saw everyone around me getting good jobs and performing well, and instead of empowering me it brought me down.” By the time that school year ended, he had already decided that he needed to go out and get experience and come back to finish his senior year later.

But Kevin never went back.

It turned out what he’d learned in school didn’t help at all in the world of work.

“Once I left, I starting looking to get experience. I applied for kitchen jobs ranging from steakhouse dinner positions to breakfast prep cooks—15 applications and 5 stage (tryouts) in total. Once I even applied as a dishwasher, and never got a call back.” He describes interviews at restaurants that would be great, but the interviewers would come around to “we need experience on top of” his schooling. 

That one brief experience on Cape Cod was far from sufficient to meet their requirements. “I would tell them ‘I’m only 20. I just said I spent three years at college. I can’t give you an additional three years of work if I’m only this young’.”

Once upon a time, Kevin had a passion. He went to culinary school. He had an “incredible” experience that turned sour. When he left, he couldn’t find any work in his chosen field. It wasn’t because he’d left before getting a degree, and it wasn’t because he couldn’t cook. No one would hire him because he didn’t have the experience required out there in the job market. And the fact that it was required was never conveyed to him directly while he was at Johnson & Wales. Teachers, not guidance counselors, emphasized that he ought to get a job, but no one put it in the context of whether he would succeed at even launching a career.

It could be easy to dismiss Kevin’s experience as one of his own making. He never sought any school services that might have helped him get some experience, and he largely blames himself for what happened after he left school. But is it really his fault? To be sure, individual responsibility cannot be ignored; learning to take it is a crucial part of growing up.

But how much can high school students and young college students actually know when it comes to knowing the right next steps for them along a lifelong pathway? Are we failing them by expecting too much, particularly in the complex and competitive 21st-century marketplace where once most people graduate they need a job to live and pay off debt? 

Two high school guidance counselors who reacted to the one thing a “loner” kid expressed interest in sent Kevin down that pathway. Theirs wasn’t career-oriented guidance; it was about getting him into a college. And then, at Johnson & Wales, there seems to have been no direct connection between his cooking program and the restaurant industry to which he aspired—and he was offered nothing in the way of formal career guidance. Was he set up for failure?

Fortunately for Kevin, after years of odd jobs and lack of hope, he discovered the Year Up program, which got him back on track. But programs like Year Up are reactions to failures that happen as people move along the pathway, including at transition points such as the “handoffs” between levels of schooling and from school to work. That crosses racial, ethnic, gender, and geographic lines. It happens to young people of privilege and those with none. In Kevin’s case, it led to depression—after all, he had to abandon his passion—and a lot of school debt he’s still carrying. He’s fortunate in that his family was able to welcome him back into the home and provide for him. Not every kid has that kind of fallback. And were it not for Year Up, who knows where he’d be today. 

We could have done better for Kevin. We have an obligation to plug the holes on the pathway so we do not have to serve so many people who fall off.

A 21st-century social contract would strengthen the guidance students receive and connect schools and workplaces more effectively to find more ways for people to find the next steps that are genuinely right for them towards a good-paying job. It’s a national imperative. 

As I’ve done with other interviewees, I offered Kevin the opportunity to link to a song.  He took me up on it, choosing a song titled “What Makes a Good Man,” by The Heavy. “This song,” Kevin says, “creates more of a connective bond between my words—and making connections.” 

In my next post, I’ll be speaking to David Delmar Senties, the founder and executive director of Resilient Coders, a program in Boston that trains people of color for careers as software engineers and then connects them with jobs. Like Year Up, it depends on companies hiring its graduates. David posted a comment to same blog post in which you first met Kevin, which compelled me to want to get his perspective on how we handle the transition along the pathway from high school to post-secondary education and into a job.