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.