Wednesday, October 26, 2011


The Tortoise and the Hare

As a veteran of many an industry advisory board meeting, this report really didn’t surprise me. A study from the National Bureau for Economic Research says that the income gains from specifically vocational majors (as opposed to liberal arts majors) peter out relatively early in life. By midlife, the liberal arts majors are actually out-earning the vocational majors, on average. The most dramatic fades occur in apprenticeship programs.

As always, “on average” covers all manner of sins. But still.

Data, intuition, and personal experience and observation all suggest that the liberal arts folks do better once they get past that first real job. The trick is getting that first real job. The vocational folks do much better at getting that first real job, but often have trouble moving up from it. (That’s especially true when the one job for which they’re specifically trained gets automated or outsourced.) The vocational degrees are the proverbial hares, quick out of the gate but fading over time; the liberal arts tortoises make a weak first impression, but have a way of winning over time.

The short term/long term distinction gets lost in much of the popular discussion, especially since the Great Recession started.

Entry-level positions tend to be relatively task-specific, and to reward some pretty low-level skills. But they also allow the opportunity to show higher-level skills over time. It’s one thing to be a good helpdesk technician with the ability to diagnose and fix computer problems; it’s quite another to know how to work with angry users, to prioritize tasks, and to handle difficult colleagues. Those skills won’t get you the first job, but they’ll get you promoted.

The challenge for the liberal arts folks is finding that first real job, where the softer skills get the chance to shine.

This report about STEM skills across the curriculum made the same point from the other direction. Instead of pitting STEM against the humanities, it made the obvious point that even the humanists and social scientists would benefit from the ability to think quantitatively. Can you unpack the assumptions behind the charts and graphs? Can you see through the bad assumption, and figure out the missed opportunity? People who can do that add real value, whether in business or in scholarship.

Over the last decade-plus of industry advisory boards, I’ve consistently heard the same thing: employers need employees who can communicate, think on their feet, and handle change. Smart people can be (and often will be) trained in the specifics on the job. Those who grasp the big picture are the ones who will move up. Judging by employer feedback, that big picture ability is surprisingly rare.

Maybe it’s me, but I find the convergence of these stories an occasion for hope. In different ways, they’re saying the same thing: don’t mistake the short term for the long term. Yes, heading back to Mom’s basement after graduation can be profoundly depressing. I’m fairly certain I would have chewed my own leg off to avoid that trap. But for those who’ve learned how to communicate well, to handle ambiguity, and to see around corners, the breaks will come.

In the meantime, we’ll just keep right on teaching the liberal arts tortoises, and doing it without apology. To the economy at large, I’ll just say, you’re welcome.

One reason the vocationally trained may be stalling in their careers may be due to the lack of communications and writing skills needed to advance. Good liberal arts majors eventually do well after finding that first job because of their communication skills.

But just majoring in the liberal arts does not guarantee good communications skills. Many students in my regional u. do not have the communication or critical thinking skills to succeed in the job market with their liberal arts major. They just major in it - because well - it's easier than comp sci or physics. I think the quality of a liberal arts degree varies quite a bit between colleges.

So students with poor verbal AND quantitative skills - who regularly arrive at our doorstep - are not necessarily going to find the liberal arts degree to be their job card. There's got to be something else we can do for them - besided shoving them off to the nearest regional u.
First, yes, "on average" is highly misleading. I'd like to see some distributions on that as well.

Also, while this argument sounds persuasive, remember that the comparison is historical. Will liberal arts graduates of 2011 have higher earnings in 10 years than 2011 vocational graduates? No idea. Historically, that's been the case, but historically a house has been a rock solid financial investment. This isn't as true lately.

Combine this with the fact that even good liberal arts grads with the skills you mention in this post are taking up to a year to find that first job with student loan interest growing in that time and the picture gets hazier. If a vocational grad (or skilled apprentice) can pay off their debts much sooner, how does that come into play? Recall that some individuals with debt are into the six figures at graduation, so this isn't a trivial problem.
I attended a SLAC and my human services major required quant theory and stats, in addition to all the other "touchy-feely" stuff. We have a reputation of producing critical thinkers and good communicators in all of our programs from the lib arts to nursing to business and pre-professional programs. A good school will do that.
I've met plenty of employers who say they can train to task, but in this economy, I've never met employers who do.

Remember, we've gone from Class Warfare as a sideline to Class Warfare as the primary reason for doing business.
Any voc ed program that involves a workforce shortage will confound the described income trend. Nursing is a prime example of this (six figures salary after an AA degree!) but there are others. The key is to turn off the spigot once you've saturated the market. This is something schools resist (rightfully) because they carry the cost of starting programs and understand the political hurtles involved with growth. But it plays havoc with salaries when the program that was needed 5 years ago because of a temporary shortage now has saturated the market with new grads and keeps going.
Ivory-maybe I'm misreading but I don't know of ANY AA nurse who earns 6 figures. Even when salaries were radically higher a few years ago. Even now, you'd probably need to be CNO or something to that effect to rake in 6 figures as a nurse.
Maybe I'm missing something, but did the study even attempt to control for input? Because the people who choose tortises are different than the people who choose hares. Is there any evidence that "liberal arts" teaches skills that are more useful than "underwater basketweaving" or do we just take those that perform best in academics and point them toward liberal arts, and then take credit for their success? People who can delay gratification, who are better at reading academic cultural memes about success, who have enough courage to be able to tell people 'yes I majored in this because I was interested in it', who have enough slack/privilege in their life to be able to choose that... there's so many factors that would make liberal arts majors do better in the long run.

On another note... don't you think you sound either hopelessly outdated or hopelessly elitist saying you would've "chewed off your own leg to avoid that particular trap"? 85% of college graduates are moving back home. It's depressing in part because people think they are alone in their "failure", and I think you're perpetuating that meme. Normally you communicate quite well and your blog is a pleasure to read, but there's got to be some kind of Murphy's law clause at work- the more you are emphasizing the value of those that can communicate well, the poorer a communicator you will come off as (in this case, through seeming tone-deaf to a generation).
The right question here is not "how can we get everyone to pursue a liberal arts degree so that everyone will earn the same in 20 years?" Rather, it is "are vocational programs resulting in healthy incomes in 20 years?"
Anon - to make $100,000 you need to make about $48 per hour. In the Kaiser contract with CNA that expired in 2006, a staff nurse II with 3 years experience makes about $42/ hour. Add on the $6.20 shift differential for nights and bam, you are making 6 figures. With three years experience! Now, (in the contract that started 2011)a staff nurse I makes $49 per hour. No requirement for BSN - so those first year nurses are making 100k on the day shift. Even Staff nurse IVs don't have to be BSNs if they have enough experience. And this doesn't include holiday pay, overtime or a whole host of other wage increasing benefits that nurses have within these contracts.

The Kaiser contract is usually the standard that county systems and Catholic Healthcare West try to meet because they are one of the biggest employers of nurses in CA (Kaiser employes over 17,000 nurses - CHW, only about 5,000). To put this in perspective even more, LA county's pay scale high end for RN Is is a little under 100k (about 95,000) - so you wouldn't get that entry level but you could work your way there over time.

Any of the union RN wages can be found on-line if you want to check the numbers.

There's a reason so many people go to nursing school....
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