Tuesday, June 29, 2010


When Narratives Collide

As regular readers know, I’m a colossal nerd. One of my nerdier habits involves listening to Marketplace podcasts on a daily basis, and even the weekly wrap-up show on weekends. (Livin’ la vida loca!) Over the past few days, I’ve heard variations on these two themes, and I’m having a hard time believing them simultaneously:

1. New college grads are having a terrible time finding jobs. To the extent that many can find jobs, they’re often in positions that don’t really require college degrees.

2. America is falling behind other countries in educational attainment, and the only hope for lasting prosperity is to increase dramatically the educational level of our young people.

I find each of these plausible separately, but I’m having an awful time believing them together. We need more chronically underemployed people who can’t pay back their student loans? It’s not obvious why that would be true.

It may be a short term/long term issue. In the short term we don’t really have enough jobs to go around, but over the long term we’re likelier to prosper with an educated workforce than an uneducated one. Well, okay, but if that’s true, shouldn’t we somehow help tide over the current grads until things turn around?

If the argument for massively increased higher education isn’t individual gain but instead improved odds of larger social gain, then we’re implicitly treating higher education as a public good. If it’s truly a public good, it should be funded accordingly.

In the popular press, point 1 is usually painted as an individual failing, and point 2 is usually treated as structural. But they’re really both structural. If good jobs go begging but new grads would rather smoke pot in Mom’s basement, then okay, that’s individual failing. But that seems to be the exception. More often, new grads are hitting their heads against walls looking for serious employment, and having a terrible time finding it.

Wise and worldly readers, I need your guidance. Is there a reasonable and coherent way to believe both 1 and 2 at the same time?

Look at three different possibilities:

1) New grads in some fields are snapped up, but those in others work at McDonalds. There's a reason the US is importing nurses from all over the world, for example. And an undergrad degree in English or media studies is no more a job ticket now than it ever was.

2) There are jobs out there, but the pay is so bad that they aren't attractive. When the pay offered a new engineer is less than minimum wage (counting mandatory overtime) then it's unsurprising that few want the job.

3) Employers are all seeking, like they were when I graduated, 2-5 years experience. And in the current economy, they are more likely to get it so they don't have to 'settle' for a new grad. (When I started at BNR they assumed a new hire took 6 months to become fully productive, while a new grad took 2 years. A company needs to take the long view to hire new grads, which is tough to do when management is graded quarterly…)
I cannot recommend myself as either worldly or wise, but both 1 and 2 seem to be reconcilable (and perhaps even supportable) if more smart, well-educated, engaged young people do not have to get jobs.

Now I'm not in any position to suggest an alternative. But I'm left wondering if this is one of those times when questioning a few cultural assumptions---at least with slightly increased frequency---might be one result.
Yes, it is harder for new traditional undergrads to find jobs...that is the jobs they want. There are jobs available but it might not be at the salary or power level they think they deserve. I think a misplaced sense of worth is behind a lot of the grumbling of new grads and not finding jobs. Did I want to take a job as an admin assistant right out of college? Of course not but it paid the bills until I got some experience.

The second point is trickier since I have always supported the idea that everyone should go on to higher education. I think we need to redefine what higher education is. A country full of PhD's isn't going to help us, if there isn't a person who can remember how to lay a brick or put plumbing in a house.
No, although I always have doubts about whether such statements are based on fact rather than spin.

Is it harder for a new grad to get a job today than it was in May 1975 when unemployment peaked at 9.0% during that recession (which was close to the peak of the Baby Boom leaving college) or between May 1982 (9.4%) and May 1983 (10.1%), with unemployment peaking at 10.8% during that period of the Reagan recession? Comparisons always seem to be made to the good times of the Clinton years or recovery years, not those good old days.

Are they taking jobs that only require a HS degree, like being a painter? Somehow I doubt it. I suspect they are taking jobs that require "some college", but were expecting ones that advertise specifically for a BA in pick-your-subject and at a significantly higher salary.

Do they have any 40-hours-per-week work experience at all, or are they looking for their very first full-time job in their early 20s?

BTW, part of the problem with the level of educational attainment in the US is that a HS degree doesn't mean what it used to mean, and "college degree" does not mean "has technical skills".
Nope. #2 is a bullshit rhetorical move used to blame people on an individual basis for the structural problems inherent in #1.
If workforce training is the priority, I think we could get a lot more bang for the buck if we sent more people to vocationally specific training after high school, and fewer people into fuzzy arts&sciences college majors that fit the pool of available jobs very poorly.

This notion that a college degree -- any college degree -- is a ticket into the elite and entitles the holder to a comfy white-collar job with a bit of status and authority is really rather pernicious. It was true when college degrees were rare, but it isn't true anymore, and this misperception is causing a lot of wasted effort and misspent funds, both public and private.
I re-entered the workforce a few months ago after taking some time off with my children. Despite the recession, I had no trouble finding a job a all; in fact, I was juggling multiple offers in no time. There is nothing special about me. It's just that even with the large child-rearing gap in my resume, I still looked better to many employers than someone fresh out of college. So I definitely believe that the new graduates are having trouble.

That said, well, what in the world do employers expect? When I was doing my job hunt earlier this year, I noticed that even simple clerical jobs had gone from advertising "bachelor's degree preferred" to "bachelor's degree required." If every member of your workforce is going to have a 4-year degree, from the mailroom on up, then you're going to have to suck it up and hire inexperienced people sometimes. Someone has to give these kids their first job in order for them to gain that experience. It's very hard to have it both ways - every secretary you bring on board is unlikely to have a college degree AND ten years of experience.

Anyway, this dynamic is not healthy. There is no logical reason for an administrative assistant to be "required" to have a degree. I think it's just laziness on the part of hiring managers; a bachelor's degree is now so often treated as merely the jumping-off point for a competent human being. But do you really want all your administrative assistants to have degrees? Because if they do, they probably aren't going to want to be administrative assistants for long, and then you've got a revolving door at that desk.

That all said, I definitely agree that the notion of "any bachelor's degree is the ticket to a good job" is foolish and has to go. It does nothing but a lot of harm. Young adults who are willing to get their hands dirty have the most success at work. But folks have so much invested in their degrees - you don't want to spend 4 years and 100K of debt and then figure out you were wrong. So you work to perpetuate the myth that it's always a good idea.
Several observations come to mind...

I agree that this is a short term vs long term issue. If you look at this 122 page report, "Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018" (http://www9.georgetown.edu/grad/gppi/hpi/cew/pdfs/FullReport.pdf)
released at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, it is clear that high education requirements are going to become more and more important in the next decade and onward.

However the report above and your confusion have a common problem - treating all education/graduates as the same. If you take the more career oriented majors (accounting, engineering, business) and compare them to the non-applied ones (English, history, philosophy, art), what are some of the important differences? At my undergrad university, the engineering faculty had its own placement office that helped and usually succeeded in placing students in summer jobs in their field, arranging co-ops and post-graduation jobs. This high level of job/career support means that many engineering graduates already have 0.5-1 years of experience when they graduate.

I agree with one of the other commenters that expectations may be an issue for some people. I trained as a librarian (2 year Master's) and starting salaries are normally in the $50,000-$60,000/year CAD range. I've read several different salary surveys from various professional organizations and I think I have a good idea of what entry level pay in my field should be like. But I wonder if many people do that kind of research?

If I had to assign relative weights, I would say that this is 75% a structural problem and 25% an individual problem.
They're easy to reconcile. Warehousing kids for four years and giving them a degree does not mean that they've attained education -- they've purchased a credential.
Part of the problem is that students discount the importance of getting meaningful work or internships while in school. They expect their degree alone to carry the day. Most employers have no interest in breaking in a new person – so these expectations are in direct conflict.

I have a cousin who is an artist and while in school she could have spent her summers working for Adobe in their student internship program (her specialty was digital art)learning about their business. Now, she has no professional network and can't get into that internship because she's no longer a new grad. When I asked her why she didn't do that internship she replied that she didn't think it was important at the time - her profs and counselors were encouraging her to work on her art - not use her art as work. She now works retail.

Students need internships and jobs that show independence and responsibility. I also think employers looking for talent would do well to offer a few internship spots to people switching careers or wanting to try something new. It's a free way for both parties to check each other out.

In this market, everyone I know who has a job has gotten it through their professional network. This has to be grown from the first year of college. I know that a lot of students don’t have the luxury of doing unpaid internships during the summer and instead work jobs that offer little development potential. Long term, this is a losing strategy.
#2 is the lie. Yes it's true our education system is flawed compared to other countries, but more bachelor's/master's/PhD's is not the answer. It's true we import a lot of PhDs and software engineers, but not b/c we need them, b/c the imported HB1 Visa holders will work for far less than an American. Employers are always complaining about not being able to find what they're looking for, but right now they're just all being extremely picky. They always talk about the big glut when all the baby boomers retire but i'm not certain we're going to see that. I think by the time the majority of the boomers do retire, Xers will have moved into management roles and educated millenials will be plentiful. Even nursing grads are having a hard time finding work now, companies just don't want to hire, and like to pretend it's a talent issue.

Anon@5:20- even a bachelor's degree is not enough now to get an admin job "right out of college." Companies hiring admins want to see a degree AND several years of related (admin/clerical/office) experience. I agree there are a lot of selfish philosophy majors out there who thought it would all work out fine, and many have the opportunity/privilege to not work, but many others are taking any jobs they can and are just happy to have a job. I'll believe there's a real shortage of educated individuals when companies are making extra efforts to recruit rather than just importing cheap labor. Right now even engineers are having a hard time finding jobs, so nothing is sacred.
Oh this is easy. Trivial even. They're both true. Employers need more employees with advanced practical skills. New college grads graduate with irrelevant skills to most of the market.

Gone are the times where you can transition from German Lit to Web Designer, but students still buy the bullshit rhetoric of 'the value of a college degree' in the abstract. That humanities majors have trouble finding work is not new; what's new is that the only place that ever wanted 'any Bachelors degree' was civil service, which you might have heard, is having a bit of trouble with the financing of existing jobs, let alone new ones.

The other natural outlet for humanities was law school. Which suffered a bubble during the housing boom, with every big deal needing lawyers; every time real estate traded hands in some fashion a lawyer was involved: loan origination contracts, review docs and contracts for purchase; create security contracts and review existing ones for purchase. When that all unwound in 2008 a lot of people who had lined up jobs in 2L found themselves jobless and in a hell of a lot of debt. So new college grads don't really see law school as an option currently (or MBAs).

So that leaves jobs that don't utilize their degree, or grad school. You've suggested too many people in grad school leads to adjunct overcrowding, but the solution you've proposed is just crazy talk; pigeonhole theorem suggests that in many fields a Professor would typically have only one student over their career, maybe two allowing for growth and industry attrition. Which would surely make for stimulating classroom conversations.
First of all, I also love Marketplace.

Here's a thought that I cannot support with any evidence. I get the feeling sometimes that society during normal economic times can produce enough jobs for productive people. Obsession with the bottom line, however, and exorbitant sums paid to high level executives, restrict job prospects for the masses of average, everyday graduates. If companies were willing to accept smaller, short-term profits, then they might be able to take on more workers and expand over the long haul. Taking on more workers would also, in the long run, benefit the economy as a whole by generating more purchasing power.
I don't know that I have an answer for you, but in my state (North Carolina) there is a big push to get ready for a new student boom over the next 10 years. A lot of the "talk" is to prepare students for jobs. On the other hand, some of the state's own projections show that the majority of jobs over the next 10-20 years are jobs that don't require a college degree or at least a four year college degree (the jobs are going to be in service industries and health care). Don't know how to reconcile this, other than to say that not everyone needs a four year degree for a job and more people should look to a technical or vocational education. Of course, I hate to see college discussed as if its only viable outcome is for a job rather than some of the traditional outcomes such as being a better citizen or appreciating life.
I agree with Ivory. I graduated two years ago with my Master's degree and had offers in no time. Why? Because I had gained five years of experience in my field prior to hitting the job market by working part-time and doing an internship. Some of my friends, who have similar college credentials, cannot find full-time work, partly because they did not work at all during college and have no meaningful professional network. I'm just glad that those years dragging myself to work after classes came in handy!
Let me suggest a third narrative: the economy (big, amorphous thing that nonetheless behaves like a person sometimes) had this nifty carrot-and-stick thing going until its overwhelming hunger got the best of it (read: Enron, etc.) and it started to nibble at the carrot. Carrot's pretty much decimated now, so . . . stay tuned. Film at eleven.
This is actually something I am facing right now. As a high school graduate, I went into college unmotivated and truthfully, unmoved that anything I did there had a point. Consequently, I suffered the slow drawn out lack of effort that led to me leaving 3 years later with a horrible GPA. Why? The school I was at, wasn't preparing me for anything but to line their pocketbook.
Now, I am older, wiser, and have finally found what kind of career I would like to have, and what types of education I excel in. However, at this point, I'm rather restricted, because we put most of our focus on cumulative GPAs, with little room for speculation and observation at trends, and the possibility that people do make mistakes. But I digress.

Your two quotes are not mutually exclusive. In my opinion, the american style of collegiate education is more of a situation of quantity not quality. We have a society that has become overly concerned with the level of education that a person has, regardless if it is needed to fulfill their job position. If we would move from pushing all our high school graduates to attending college to attain useless degrees to pump up the "bottom line." We've standardized everything, and forgot that each individual person learns in a different way, and is strong in some points, along with being weak in others. We should be pushing a more personalized form of education, that caters to each student, as opposed to having students cater to standardized degree requirements, along with the path away from insisting everyone needs a college education to succeed. This sets a bar higher and higher that eventually moves into a redundant system doing little to actually educate useful information. In that way, we could cut out alot of extraneous "fluff" from our education system, and maybe get back into competing with the world in educational attainment.

But that is just my opinion. All I have is an Associate in Science.
#2 is demonstrably false. See this article on the real science gap, in particular note the study from the Urban Institute.

However it's a canard that is handy for our corporate masters, and their useful idiots in the media who parrot the company line.
In the current economy companies expect to be able to hire without paying a decent wage , and expect all their hires to have degrees plus ten years' relevant experience. So of course new graduates can't get hired. Even if all new graduates had received only vocational training and not a college education, there would still be a shortage of jobs. This can't be solved by education.

I've worked in IT for thirty years, during all of which time we've been bludgeoned with the skills shortage narrative. It has always been both false and true: true, there is a shortage of Java skills when defined as: you can't hire someone with five years of Java experience in 1999 (when the only person who qualifies is James Gosling, the inventor of Java); false, there is no shortage of Java skills because human beings trained in software can learn a new language quite easily.
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