Thursday, December 05, 2013

Education and the Workplace

Once upon a time, you'd go to high school, then get a job. You'd work, earn a paycheck, eventually retire, and collect a pension. A high school diploma prepared you to earn a decent living as a clerk or semi-skilled worker just about anywhere.

Of course, that began to change about the same time I was born. I'm one of the last of the Baby Boomers. Our parents and the older members of our generation began to push the "necessity" of higher education on their children. The sales pitch was that to "get ahead" you needed a degree. Then you'd be better than everyone else and earn more. Naturally, everyone needed to get ahead, so everyone started going to college. It was a fantastic marketing campaign instigated and perpetuated by people whose job it is to sell education, abetted by those whose job it is to provide it.

As part of that sales effort, people were told about all the menial jobs that they would be relegated to without a degree. The implicit message was that those necessary, vital jobs are demeaning, and beneath them. Without the degree, you can't "make something of yourself". Without their product, you're nothing.

Predictably, there's a down side.

Yup. Everybody's got a degree. Hiring managers don't want to hire a nobody, so they "require" a degree whether the job duties logically necessitate having one or not. They don't care about the actual needs of the position, because it's very easy to lazily forego a meaningful and informative interview process and weed out "poor candidates" by requiring the mere possession of the degree. Ironic, isn't it? The degree certainly hasn't done a thing to improve the hiring process.We can now just look at a paper so we don't have to think or make real, substantive judgments about living, breathing people.

To illustrate how completely pervasive this has gotten, many of the jobs that were previously considered to be semi-skilled labor now require degrees! Some employers require a plumbing or carpentry degree. For instance, Bob Jones University is advertising carpentry degrees. Here's some info on getting a plumbing degree.

Education inflation has degraded the value of the typical college degree to near-worthlessness. But its cost has skyrocketed with the demand. As a result, Americans are saddled with record levels of debt. The aggregate debt attributed to student loans is now around ONE TRILLION DOLLARS. For our European friends who need to convert this, it's $1,000,000,000,000.00. Your average American college student graduates $25 thousand dollars in debt, for which he has earned the opportunity to get a job. Not a great job. Not a really high-paying job. Just exactly the same sort of job that his grandfather got with a high-school diploma and no debt.

Score 1 for the education salesmen, and 0 for millions of gullible saps.

There's a way out of this, but it requires a whole lot of people to sacrifice their prestige for intelligent action.

First, let me say quickly that I'm a huge proponent of education, and alluded to this rant in a previous post,  I'm an autodidact, but I love teachers, too. But I have a strong dislike for "educators". In my experience, people who willfully call themselves "educators" are usually those self-important jackasses who've stopped teaching and started selling. They've got a bottle of snake oil to cure every ill. To hell with them.

Also, before proposing a cure, let's look at the current state of education and the workplace, according to me. This is stuff that should be taught by the time a kid enters high school, so he has time to act on it. I know my kids were taught, because I'm the one who had the conversation with them.

Step 1 

You're born. I'd congratulate you, but you didn't have anything to do with it. So congrats to your parents. Being born doesn't make you special, except to you and them. It makes you a person. We all possess humanity. What can make you truly special is what you do with yours. From a secular perspective, that's the only lesson of Life. Everything else is commentary.

Step 2

You acquire some "home-trainin'" from your parents. Basic things like manners, discipline, obedience, and respect for elders. If you don't get this then you are at a supreme disadvantage, so if your parents did their job and were hard on you, then thank them, bless them, and love them dearly for it. If they didn't teach you these things, then you legitimately have someone to blame for your life being difficult. It is not "society". Learn from that experience and be better to your own children. Be a parent, not a friend.

Step 3

You go to school. It doesn't matter whether it's publicly funded, privately funded, parochial, or home-school... basic education is mandatory. You learn to read, write, do math, work with money... the basic stuff that will prepare you for entry into society. This is basically fundamental career preparation. It's also where you realize the value of the manners, discipline, obedience and respect that your parents taught you, for with those skills anyone can find success in school. Without them, you're hosed. You'll either learn those from some caring adults, or you'll very likely fail.

Now you have a choice. The only failure is failure to choose.

Step 4: option 1 

Having had 18 years to think on the matter, and having decided that you want to pursue a highly skilled profession, like a doctor, lawyer, skilled artisan or technician. Rather than work for low wages to gain knowledge and experience, you opt to not only work for NO wages, but to also pay a stiff sum in out-of-pocket tuition, or take on student loans for the same. You'll do this for at least 2 years, probably 4, and maybe 6 or more. In the meantime, if you want to pay for your own food you might take on a part-time job, understanding that at this stage you have exactly NO more qualifications than anyone else seeking entry-level employment. When the (probable) 4 year educational stint said and done, you have more training and less experience than the person who worked at a trade full-time over that same period.

Step 4: option 2

Having had 18 years to think on the matter, you decide to forego any further education and strike out on your own. You may simply be doing landscaping or ditch-digging, and there's not one thing wrong with that if that's what you want to do. God love ya, we need you. You may be a visionary entrepeneur, and autodidact, or just a plain go-getter. Anybody can make a comfortable living at this if they have the intelligence and motivation, but it take dedication and sacrifice that few possess.

Step 4: option 3 

Having had 18 years to think on the matter, and having decided that college isn't for you, you get an entry-level job or apprenticeship. You're expected to learn from this, gain skills, and use that experience to get a better job. Entry-level jobs are not careers. They are stepping stones to careers. The pay is low because the work is basic, and because it is partly paid in experience. Consider the money that you're not paid to get this experience your "tuition" for the work experience you receive. But as you gain experience, you move to better positions, apply for certifications, etc

It works with more than just trades. If you're working at McDonald's for more than two years and you're not a shift supervisor, then you should be looking for a better job elsewhere. If you're not actively looking, then you have a fundamental misunderstanding of what that position is for. Remember, entry-level shift worker is NOT A CAREER. Advancement is pyramidal by nature... it's lonely at the top, and sometimes the only way to advance is through a lateral move to another company. If you're at McDonald's for more than 6 years and you're still a shift supervisor, then the same advice applies. And when you find a level you're comfortable at, only then do you stop actively climbing.

Now, if you think that you can just skate on the same entry-level job as the guy who took option 1 and is working his way through school, you're deluded. You took that "entry level" job without considering what it was an entry to. Furthermore, you're standing in that entryway forever, barring entry to somebody else who's a lot more industrious than you. You somehow believe that serving up fries should provide you with a living wage, but you can't really point to any skills to justify a salary above the entry level. That guy next to you working his way through school has a lot more talent and motivation and sheer potential than you do and is willing to your job for that same low wage. So you're left to explain exactly why you should be paid more than you are, because frankly, honestly, and to your face... you're not worth it. You want more, then get out of the entry level position. There's nothing wrong with the minimum wage, dude... it's YOU that's broken. Fix yourself (it's seek help to do that, but you need to do the seeking), get off the starting block, and join the race.


Comparing... an academic having just earned a degree qualifies for a position that pays a little more than an electrician of the same age who applied himself to on-the-job training and passed the state certification tests. But it will take the academic decades to pay off the student loans, whereas the electrician may have a pretty good credit rating by this time. Now the earning potential of the academic may be higher, but with academic inflation being what it is, there's no guarantee of that. Purely academic positions are often poorly funded, and I know plenty of high-school grads who own businesses that employ fancy-pants academics. To boost earnings, a college grad may have to dig a deeper financial hole for a post-graduate degree; whereas the electrician may advance through experience and home study. So though the money situation can even out, the degree does buy you the opportunity to do things that you may want to do, but can't without the degree. The difference is in where you put the risk.


So now we have hiring managers who are requiring expensive degrees for jobs that don't need it.

My advice to industry? Stop it. It's idiotic. You're forcing yourself into interviewing job candidates who are four years older than they need to be, and who are saddled with debt that they have to pay off. They require higher salaries because of that debt, and you're paying that bill. Again: they're saddled with debt. Is that a good security risk? Look at the actual duties of the jobs you're offering and ask yourself honestly... honestly... whether they can be done just as well by a high school grad with a decent academic record. If so, lower the requirements, and lower the starting salary. Don't drop it to burger-flipping levels, but if you want to attract quality workers who are eager to learn, easy to train, and won't drag you into their debt, look at their GPA. Interview them. In the four years that you currently spend waiting for a trainee to get out of college, the high school grad will have industry-specific experience with your firm, and you will have paid less for him. He's not making loan payments, so he's still making a competitive wage, but he's doing it without the stress of debt. Value this guy and promote him according to the contribution he makes to you rather than the contribution he made to a university. Reserve the high starting salaries and the certification requirements for those positions that actually require them.

My advice to students? Before taking on tens of thousands of dollars of debt, ask yourself what you are buying with that money. An opportunity for a good job? Read my advice to industry and look for that employer. If those employers aren't around then get the amount of education you need for the kind of position you want. And keep in mind that most employers don't care what college you got your degree from. They're looking for the presence of a degree. So don't dig a deep financial hole to get what is basically your job raffle ticket. If your goals do require a prestigious degree, then my advice is the same... acquire the education that meets the level of bullshit required for your target position. Sorry for being blunt, but in a world where a person can be declared a "professor of Constitutional law" and gain the Presidency of the United States without demonstrating the least bit of respect for the Constitution, I reserve for myself a certain degree of cynicism. These days, a degree retains its value primarily for that precious minority who have devoted themselves to medicine and the sciences. Bottom line, make sure you get the education you need or want. Don't mortgage the family farm to buy snake oil. Remember the economics of your situation.

My advice to parents? Stop pushing your kids into stupid action. Tell them to do what makes them happy. If they find out what that is in your lifetime, don't bitch about it. It's their life, not yours.

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