Wednesday, September 18, 2013


First Job, Second Job

In my DeVry days, students who majored in electronics engineering technology used to ask me -- not always in the friendliest way -- why they had to take my poli sci class.  I told them that their technical skills would get them their first job, but their “soft” skills would get them promoted.  A techie who can also see the big picture and work well with non-specialists could move up quickly in many organizations.  The trick was in seeing past the first job.

I was reminded of that in reading about a poll of employers, and a related one of the general public, in which both employers and the public say that what they really want from a college education is communication and problem-solving skills.  In comments and on Twitter, a fair number of people commented that employers may respond to a poll that way, but they don’t hire that way; if they did, English majors would be as sought-after as engineers.  

I think the issue is that the question is imprecise.  What employers look for in entry-level positions, and what they look for in employees overall, often don’t match.  And that’s a problem for employers as much as for colleges and students.

Entry-level hiring in a slow economy is about solving an immediate, tangible problem.  You may not have -- or may not believe you have -- the time and money to train a generally smart person to do what you need done; you want someone who can just show up and start producing.  (Ideally, you want someone who has done the exact same thing before, but is still willing to accept entry-level wages.)  The candidate who can win that round is the one who doesn’t need to explain her readiness; it’s obvious.  

In boom times, the dynamic shifts.  When things are really hot, and “instant-on” employees are either unavailable or too expensive, generalists can become attractive.  When you have the time and money to train, it can make sense to hire very smart people and train them.

The seeming rigor of slow-economy hiring can be a false economy over the long term.  If you hire just to fill the immediate need, you may find yourself with someone who can only do that.  After several years of hiring that way, you find that the bench for promotions is thin.  You didn’t hire for growth; you hired to plug holes.  Now you want to grow, but you don’t have the people to do it.  And when someone asks what you need colleges to emphasize, you talk about the gaps that you see.  You need all those “soft” skills in your employees -- you know, the ones you didn’t hire for upfront because they didn’t seem urgent at the time.

That’s why I can take the results of the survey with a grain of salt, even without accusing anybody of lying.  I don’t think they’re consciously lying.  They’re reporting what they’re seeing, but they aren’t connecting the dots.

The advantage to “hire smart generalists and train them” is that you wind up with people who could do the next job up the chain.  The initial learning curve may be higher, but their ceilings are higher, too.  They’re likely to be more adaptable, and therefore more capable of doing the next thing.

This is why I’m not a fan of a rigid distinction between “workforce” and “academic” programs.  Many of the skills favored in “academic” programs are actually quite valuable in the workforce, once you get beyond that entry level.  Breaking into the entry level is the hardest part.  The lifetime salary graphs I’ve seen bear this out; the liberal arts grads start lower right out of school, but eventually surpass most of their technical colleagues.  The techies start higher, but plateau quickly.  A techie who also has management skills -- Marissa Mayer, say -- can write her own ticket.  That’s why even techies need gen eds.

So yes, employers say they want soft skills and keep on hiring narrowly.  I expect that will continue until the labor market finally heats up again.  Then they’ll discover, again, that smart people know how to learn things.  The real challenge is for the generalists to hold on through the storm.    

Good point, and a tricky one to solve at the CC level.

But what that survey shows is why the highest starting salaries go to grads of a highly selective program where they take very intelligent people and train them for the short run while also educating them for the long run. They don't need to be trained and they are also what you want in 5 or 10 years.

Marissa Mayer (Stanford BS and MS) is an example of that track.

It may even be why the BSN is favored in the long run for jobs that need more critical thinking.
" I expect that will continue until the labor market finally heats up again. "

I wonder if that will happen in my lifetime.

"Then they’ll discover, again, that smart people know how to learn things. The real challenge is for the generalists to hold on through the storm."

There is no market for generalists except in retail. Unless you call business majors generalists - but I don't think that's what you mean.

The last hiring boom was brought about by a demographic dip the likes of which we are not likely to see again. There just weren't a lot of kids born in the mid 1970's and those of us who were benefitted tremendously from entering our first "real" employment at a time when there weren't a lot of young people looking for work. That's how my smart friend majored in English but went on to be a CIO. She built websites in the 90's (HTML being a language was just the thing for her), moved into project management and up the corporate chain. The skills she used to do that were not the ones she learned in English class but rather those she learned absorbing English as a second language, dealing with her large and dynamic family, her tyrannical father, and managing their weekend business at the local flea market. Even with all of her skills, if she entered the workforce now, she would never follow the same trajectory. Now, they higher programmers to program stuff. People can have their pick of Stanford grads looking for work – they don’t need someone from a nothing special state university with an English degree to work as an exec. When they sent her to a special Harvard Business School program for company execs she was a little offended. Her reaction -“I went to business school – I already know this stuff.” I reminded her that she was there to meet people and to display her own skills – and we both laughed because it was true. They could have all been learning basket weaving and it would have accomplished the same thing.

The success of a generalist will be directly proportional to their ability to integrate and display the values of members of high socioeconomic class. I don’t think studying a liberal arts program gives you that unless you are surrounded by people at a higher socioeconomic status and my local CC’s would not provide that. It’s not the classes that teach you to “talk the talk” it’s your classmates and to a limited extent your teachers. You could all be learning linear algebra and it would amount to the same thing in terms of reasoning skills.

It’s also false that smart people can learn stuff – they can learn some stuff. But no one is going to plonk them down in a molecular biology lab, hand them a pipette and ask them to go to. The gap is just too great. Likewise, they won’t get hired as a programmer, a designer, a network administrator unless they can demonstrate competence to do the job. Being able to write and reason only takes you so far – without some kind of documented technical skills / knowledge.
what they really want from a college education is communication and problem-solving skills.

I'm not at all convinced that business-useful problem-solving skills and communication skills aren't at least as easy to learn in math/science classes as in English/humanities classes.

In my observation, communication skills mean "routinely writes Strunk and White compliant material", "sounds educated and not poor", and "brings up questions to the right people and with the right tone". None of those are English-class questions. (Maybe if you count composition and rhetoric as part of English.)

And I know nothing better for problem-solving skills than programming--try as many times as you want and get immediate feedback if it doesn't work.
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We still pretending the Class War isn't happening?

"I wonder if that will happen in my lifetime.


Yeah, and you'll hate every second of it. Actually, that'll be one more thing to savor, the bile that will some day creep out of your liver to devour your insides as this country re-achieves greatness by rejecting Reagan and his vile ilk.

In 2020, the first majority-minority Census will be done. They'll probably gerrymander the hell out of it, but I don't think it'll matter, honestly.

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