May is commencement time in the USA, and in conjunction with the hundreds if not thousands of college and university commencements taking place across the country we are treated to reports and videos of numerous commencement addresses delivered by a wide range of speakers ranging from famous business people, media personalities, politicians, and more. And each year one or two of the college commencement addresses resonates in some way, whether from the message itself, or from the combination between the message and the speaker him or herself, perhaps making the story more powerful by virtue of their obstacles overcame and ability to reach and inspire the graduating students.
My cynical nature tends to mostly ignore these commencement speeches each year, because to me, if you peel back the outer surface layers that differentiate the 'speaker life story/type of personal achievement' from each other and get to their core message, well, that message seems pretty much the same. Again I am a cynic, but after a while and the fourth or fifth re-telling, the admonition to 'be true to yourself, follow your dreams, everything is possible, follow your passion....' message seems to get a little bit stale. I spent enough time in higher education to understand why colleges hire, and make no mistake, most of the commencement speeches are highly paid gigs, a big time inspirational and famous speaker to give the same message the local public school principal gave in 5th grade, it's because the parents want to be entertained and feel like they are extracting the last shred of value for the hundreds of thousands of dollars they have shelled out for Junior's education.
I'll tie this back to two college commencement addresses way back in the day to see if the point can be better made with specifics. When I was just finishing my Junior year in college I hung around to attend commencement as I wanted to take advantage of all the parties witness many good friends of mine receive their diplomas. The commencement speaker was the legendary actor Jimmy Stewart. Most of the parents were really excited to see Mr. Stewart, as he was one of the most famous actors of the parent's generation and the one just prior. I am sure he said some interesting things, he had a great voice and delivery, even at that later stage of his life, and I seem to remember people being pleased with the choice of speaker.
The following year at my graduation the commencement speaker was the high school teacher made famous by the movie 'Stand And Deliver'. Not the famous actor, Edward James Olmos, but the actual teacher who inspired the story, Jaime Escalante, who was not very well known at the time, although via the moderate success of the film at least the story had some familiarity. Mr. Escalante's speech was excellent, and most importantly for then, as indeed for today, I think in many ways the choice of someone like Mr. Escalante more appropriate and relevant, (assuming you can make any kind fo argument for the value of any commencement speaker).
I was thinking about this for another reason as well, the recent release of the Manpower 'What Jobs are Hard to Fill' survey, (I know that is not the real name, but you know which one I am talking about). In the survey we see that some of the Top 10 hardest jobs for companies to fill today are in skilled trades, sales reps, drivers, mechanics, nurses, and yes, teachers. The Top 10 list is mostly those kinds of completely necessary, important for a modern society to function properly, are unglamorous, and typically are not the populations from which fancy college commencement speakers are chosen from.
And that is kind of too bad. While Mr. Stewart was a fine speaker and a good-natured guy, he, and most of the other commencement speakers don't really hold up too well as role models in the sense of graduates' career aspirations and plans. The country doesn't really need many more aspiring actors or singers or Reality TV stars.
According to the Manpower report however, the country does need lots more tradespeople, teachers, mechanics, and accountants. Maybe we should be hearting more from these kinds of professionals at commencement time.
Sadly, Mr. Escalante passed away in 2010, so he is no longer able to try and inspire young people to follow down this path.
Edward James Olmos is still alive though. Maybe he can play that role made famous in Stand and Deliver again. He at least still has some name recognition.