Tuesday, March 05, 2013


Short Term, Long Term

Back in my faculty days at DeVry, during the Clinton years, students would ask me on a regular basis why they had to take “general education” courses, like mine.  They would have preferred to do nothing other than their technical classes, and they weren’t shy about saying so.

I told them that their technical skills would get them their first job, but that their analytical and communication skills would get them promoted.   If they only ever wanted to work at the help desk, they didn’t need my class.  But if they ever wanted to manage the people at the help desk, the stuff I helped them develop would be crucial.

I was reminded of that in reading the Marketplace/Chronicle survey of employers.  In asking employers about how job-ready new college grads are, they consistently responded that the new grads’ tech skills are fine, but their more general job skills are lacking.  I’ve heard the same thing at every employer advisory board I’ve ever attended, going all the way back to the Clinton years.

A few thoughts:

- First, I wonder how much of what they’re seeing is really a function of age, rather than education.  Many 22 year olds are preoccupied with the concerns of 22 year olds.  I don’t mean that as an attack; I wasn’t any different.  “Kids today...” is an ageless complaint, and life experience takes time.  I’d be interested in seeing if the same complaints hold about students who finish degrees in their thirties.  If not, then this is really just measurement error.

- Second, in looking at the responses -- and in reflecting on the responses in every advisory board meeting ever -- it’s hard not to notice that the popular discussion of “relevant” and “irrelevant” courses is badly mistaken.  The skills built in the traditional liberal arts matter a great deal in the workplace.  

- Finally, I wonder about the disjuncture between long term success and short term success.  Every study I’ve seen of long-term salaries tells the same story: liberal arts grads stumble out of the gate, but catch up in ten years or so, and eventually climb to the top.  Technical grads are in high demand upfront, but they tend to peak early.  Yes, there are individual exceptions, but the trend lines are well-established.  

To the extent that’s true, the real question should be how to help liberal arts majors get that first foot in the door.  (Alternately, it could be finding ways to help the tech folks develop soft skills at a higher level.)  That’s particularly tough in a vicious recession, when what little hiring that does occur tends to be very short-term focused.  

Historically, the agreement between higher ed and employers was that we would produce smart people who could be trained, and the employers would train them.  That model has broken down somewhat as employers have started expecting people to arrive pre-trained.  (The new version of that is the de facto requirement of multiple unpaid internships, in which people have to find ways to support themselves while gaining experience.)  Given the speed of turnover, many employers have decided that long training periods aren’t worthwhile.  

Community colleges in particular have a long history of training people for workforce needs, whether on the credit side (such as Nursing), the non-credit side (home health aides), or something in between (IT certifications).  And although the political and popular discussion don’t acknowledge it, I’ve long argued that even the “transfer” major becomes a major contribution to the workforce, since many of the students who go on for four-year degrees -- and even more -- wind up getting better jobs as a result.  The student who transfers from here to the state university and graduates as an engineer is eminently employable.  The general education courses she got here made that possible.

From an educator’s perspective, the useful part of the survey is in suggesting -- correctly, I think -- that atomized courses don’t always add up to a coherent whole.  Students need to be able to work in groups, to develop creative solutions, and to experience the joys and frustrations of political conflict in a goal-oriented setting.  (For me, the college radio station did that.)  Internships are of obvious value, even as they raise issues of access for students who can’t afford to work for free.  Finding scalable and sustainable ways to help less wealthy students get those experiences is a worthy challenge.

But my kingdom for a study that controls for age.  

... and maybe for a survey with more than a 1.4% response rate?
This is just excellent. Having worked in career services and recruiting, you've got the issue nailed. Unfortunately, as you point out, the world has changed, and the pact between employees and employers has been broken. And, btw, we in the education sector also place a lot of "minimum quals" on applicants that prove nothing about potential.
What I'd like to know is: when did the expectations of employers change? When did it become the status quo to expected students to come into jobs "trained", and how did this come about?
I think the answer to your third bullet point (long term success) is in your remark about atomized classes, as emphasized by the FIRST "top implications" list in the study presentation:

"... break down the false dichotomy of liberal arts and career development -- they are intrinsically linked." (panel 15)

I'd go beyond your valid point about critical thinking (because there is plenty of that in science and engineering curricula) to emphasize verbal/written critical thinking. You can't advance if you can't write a report or pitch your project to management backed by a succinct memo. Rhetoric.

The point I would make to you is that the problem is one we know all too well. It isn't that students have not taken such classes or done well in them at the time, it is that they don't see their relevance and actively dispose of those skills as soon as the class is over with. (I used to blog a lot about the mere concept of "prerequisite" being lost on students.) Anyone who has read lab reports knows what I am talking about!

PS - No surprise that managers are harder to please than executives. They actually work with the people they hire. And I can't wait to share the point about internships and other experience with my CC students.
Alternatively, it is the willingness to tolerate arbitrary rules that is correlated with long term salary potential.

In a liberal arts degree, it's taking 4 semesters of one foreign language instead of 3 of one and 1 of another. In the real world, it's avoiding getting audited by the IRS. Same skill set, and the liberal arts degree is serving as a filter for it, not as a strengthener of it.
I can only second what Dean Dad says about the value of “general education” courses.

At a school like DeVry, anything in the curriculum besides science, mathematics, and computer courses is probably regarded by students as nothing more than an unneeded distraction. Here at Proprietary Art School, anything outside of our culinary, design, fashion, or media arts curriculum is likewise resented by many or most of our students. “Why do we have to take mathematics, English, history, or science classes—I’ll never use any of them”, they complain.

But they will. Especially mathematics. A lot of students tell me that they will never use math in their major fields of study, but eventually they certainly will. This will certainly be true in culinary and design fields—a culinary student will have to be able to calculate how many potatoes they will need to order for a banquet that serves 100 people, and a designer will have to be able to diagram and measure just about any design they create.

Writing is also an important skill—if a student ever hopes to advance beyond an entry-level position they will have to be able to express themselves clearly in proposals that they issue to higher management. I have found that the ability to write and express myself clearly has been even more important to me than skill and ability in physics and math.

I also warn my students that they cannot depend on keeping their same job for their entire lives, and that they will probably have to change jobs and even careers several times over their working lives. If their education is focused too narrowly on acquiring specific skills that are deemed to be attractive to current employers, they run the danger of mastering skills that might well be obsolete and no longer needed in only a couple of years down the road. They need to acquire the ability to learn new disciplines and new skills fairly quickly in order to maintain employability in an ever-changing job market.

I have found that courses in things like philosophy, history, and psychology are useful in acquiring a sense of ethics and morality in the everyday working world. “What are you going to do,” I ask, “if your boss orders you to do something criminal, dangerous, or unethical on your job?” Suppose you are asked to cut costs by dumping pollutants into the environment. What would happen if your boss asks you to cook the books to fool the regulators or the IRS? These Gen Ed courses may be an invaluable aid in helping a student develop a better sense of ethics and morality.

Finally, after all is said, I think that the ultimate value of Gen Ed classes for a student is simply for the good of their own soul.

Everyone always (only slight exaggeration) says students need to learn to work creatively in goal oriented groups.

But do not students also need to work independently, alone? Or is that something that comes automatically?

I've never been clear on what creative and goal oriented mean. Is creative anything other than clever and smart? And goal oriented....well what isn't goal oriented? Play? Really? Children at play always have goals, even when the parents order them not to keep score.
One other thing that struck me when I had time to get to frame 58 was their opinion of on-line colleges. I wonder if that view extends to on-line programs at conventional universities. Has then been considered in the rush to MOOCs?

Becca@6:31AM makes an interesting point, since recognizing rules as an actual constraint is something no longer taught in HS, but it is worth noting that one thing specifically listed by managers is the ability to write and make oral presentations is not as high as it needs to be.

ArtMathProf, has your college considered a course like "financial math" (covering borrowing costs, for example) that leads to a basic course on managing finances for a small company? Might motivate them more than "algebra".
CCPhysicist, that’s a good idea. I don’t think that we have a course specifically labeled “Financial Math,” but a couple of our instructors do use business and financial-type exercises in their algebra and mathematics courses. One example that I use in my remedial math classes is to try to convince students that taking out a payday loan is generally not a good idea. Compounded interest is also a good way to explain exponential growth.

Dean Dad’s description of a survey of employers saying that new graduates are lacking in more general job skills was interesting. These employers are generally talking out of both sides of their mouths. They say that they want employees with general job skills, but when they actually hire someone, they hire a narrow specialist, someone who has those specific job skills that are needed for the work that is immediately at hand. Employers don’t want to spend any time or money in training—they want someone who can jump right into the job at hand on day one.
Happy to help. A course title is the first signal of its possible relevance.

On the hiring problem, I think what is happening is they are hiring a narrow specialist (e.g. a computer scientist) with the expectation that they have what someone like me (i.e. as old as dirt) would describe as solid HS writing skills. Even someone around 40 would be looking for what might have been considered the norm for a college freshman at a semi-selective Enormous State University circa 1990. And they aren't getting it.
I would amend paragraph two very slightly - it's the credential that's get's you the first job. It's some combination of technical skills and communication/analytical ability that will let you both keep the job and get promoted.

Any computer science grad, for example can find a job. Whether you move from the $35k entry-level job to the $75k "senior" (in all of 2 years) job depends on both technical skills and skills that are traditionally taught in Gen Ed courses.
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