Sunday, January 12, 2014



How do you know the level of academic degree to specify for a given job?  

Some cases are relatively obvious.  Doctors and lawyers have relatively clear-cut requirements, although they’re less clear than they once were.  (More accurately, more tasks that used to be the unique province of doctors have moved to other people.  The same is true of lawyers.)  Within academia, accrediting agencies set rules about minimum degree requirements.  The rules aren’t absolute -- some fields are new enough that graduate degrees in them don’t exist -- but they’re pretty strong in well-established fields.  

But in the corporate world, say, or even on the “staff” side of the academic world, how do you know?

The issue came up over the last few days on Twitter.  To what extent is the market premium for college degrees an accurate reflection of employee skills and productivity, and to what extent is it an artifact of poor measurement?  A degree can signify certain specific content knowledge and academic skills, but it can also signify the ability to stick with a program, to navigate requirements, to please difficult adults, and to pony up the resources (or find the resources) to make advanced study possible.  It’s a wildly imperfect indicator of those things -- we all know people without degrees who have those skills, and people with them who don’t -- but it’s better than nothing.  It’s a very rough approximation.  And until recently, “nothing” was the alternative.

The imperfection of the indicator matters when getting that next level of credential -- whether a master’s or a doctorate -- is a long, slow, expensive slog, and the market is tough.  It’s one thing to endure what amounts to a painful and expensive hazing when you at least know that you’ll get into the club.  But when you can do everything right for years on end, at considerable cost, and still face a very real chance of being excluded, it’s a little harder to be a good sport about such a blunt instrument.

Advanced degrees also tend to break along predictable racial and economic lines (though not as much by gender).  When an onerous and relatively arbitrary requirement also carries exclusions by race and class, it’s that much harder to defend.

Within higher ed, of course, it’s difficult to say anything skeptical about credentials.  We’re in the credentialing business, and widespread belief in the value of the degree is part of what allows us the wiggle room within degrees to add the other things (“general education”) that academics tend to value more than the broader culture does.  In my poli sci days, we were all acutely aware that most of our undergraduate majors considered themselves pre-law.  That wasn’t a problem, as long as the demand for pre-law was high and we had the discretion to do what we believed needed to be done.  I’d be curious to see if the precipitous drop in law school applications over the last few years has trickled down to (or was prefigured by a drop in) numbers of undergrad poli sci majors.  

When moving from undergraduate degrees to graduate degrees, though, the “general education” argument falls apart.  When the graduate degrees are focused on practitioners, rather than researchers, it’s even more difficult to justify programs without concrete payoffs.  

A month or so ago, the Atlantic ran a piece about data analytics as a hiring tool.  It raised the spectre of the devaluation of academic degrees, supplanted by a set of indicators of success tailored to each given job.  In a sense, it’s the triumph of standardized testing, except that each job would have its own standard.  If a given job required skills x, y, and z, and you had them, then why should the employer care whether you have a degree or not?

I’m not sold on the prospect, but I can’t entirely discount it, either.  If it happens, higher education will have a serious challenge on its hands.

Right now, of course, the other great function of degrees is signalling.  That’s no small thing in terms of, say, salary schedules.  One of the first elements that goes into determining an appropriate salary for a given position is its educational requirements.  Incumbents can be expected to defend those requirements, if for no other reason than to protect their salaries.  But that’s ultimately a rearguard action.  It may -- will -- delay a shift, but it won’t prevent it.  

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those in HR -- how do you determine degree requirements for jobs?  And should we rethink them?

I think the prospect of job-specific standardized testing would be more threatening anywhere in the world except in the United States, where any racial, ethnic, gender, or disability-connected disparities in performance would lead to litigation by EEOC and historically-disadvantaged groups claiming discrimination. See, for example, the regular controversies that arise in hiring and promotion exams in fire and police departments. Do you think Big Corporate wants to open itself up to that sort of legal exposure?
It gets even more complicated. If completion rates for BA degrees are boosted through intrusive counseling and hand holding plus grade inflation, the credentialing power of that degree is diminished -- at least for those colleges and universities that are thought to engage in such. And that's beginning to look like pretty much all of them. This disadvantages those students who didn't need that level of supervision, yet received it anyway as part of the package. At the same time it advantages wealthy students whose hand-holding came from their parents, since that will continue into the work world while lower-income students are shorn of the hand-holding when they graduate.

By hand-holding I don't necessarily mean only face to face support; I also mean things like very detailed syllabi and study guides, e-mail reminders of upcoming quizzes, extra credit opportunities, and a whole range of actions meant to rescue students from themselves and/or force them to focus on the parts of a course that will certainly count for a grade.
The lawsuit factor is hard to overstate. Shifting credentialing to an entity that doesn't do the hiring (Sylvan ProMetric comes to mind for some reason) "firewalls" some of the flack. And for simple, entry-level, task-oriented work (like "human tape robots") then it's... better than nothing. And yes, it's why we're seeing credentials like the Masters of Emergency Management. To its credit, it might help remove the political patronage aspects of filling those positions, and the degree itself is sort of a Masters of Public Administration tailored for firefighters.
I'm the IT director for a K-12 district. Before I came on board, the district re-wrote the education requirements for the positions in my department. Some of the people who work for me are no longer considered qualified for the positions they are already in. That's a superficial concern, however, since we won't actually fire any of them. My bigger concern is that it disrupts the pipeline from entry-level positions (e.g. computer technician) to senior-level positions (e.g. network administrator).

There is not a standard pathway for workers in IT. During the recession, employers have shifted pretty sharply in favor of four-year degrees, but the people in the field come from a variety of backgrounds: some have no college education, others have graduate degrees. Some people have certifications, others abhor them. Some people learned on the job, others had access to good technical training or degree programs with a strong practical focus. In addition, IT degrees with a focus on networking, system administration or security are still fairly new and not widely available at brick and mortar schools. Traditional computer science programs are geared more for software development that the roles more commonly available outside of large companies and the tech industry. A CS degree is useful background, but most if it is not directly applicable to these roles. MIS degrees are focused on system analyst and business support roles and are even less useful for networking, system administration and security roles.

I have several people working for me right now that have the potential to excel in higher roles, but I can't move them up unless they go back to school first. Their actual job performance is irrelevant.

I don't see how you can really solve the core problem with credentialing. (Does requiring a PhD over an MS really guarantee a better teacher in a math or science class? Not that I have noticed.) I think you have to recognize that past performance does predict future performance, and do a serious job of evaluating new staff hires based on the job they do. An AS degree in the right area might be more than enough compared to a BA degree in some field irrelevant to the work that needs to be done.
Credentialing is a substitute for thinking, a shortcut in thoughtful evaluation, and a poor substitute indeed.

I would like to believe that in the long run, thinking will win out, but I am prepared to be disappointed.
Hiring is incredibly difficult in general; just ask any professional sports scout. Given near-infinite resources, tremendous staff time, and well-defined roles . . . spectacular flameouts are just as common as totally unexpected massive successes.

Since most people can be trained for most non-engineering jobs in six months anyway, hire for flexibility, basic capacity to learn, and initiative. Which has little to do with credentials. It's better to have a workplace with few conflicts than almost any other outcome, since conflict is so unbelievably expensive. You're looking for a state of mind much more than a set of capacities, unless you literally lack the technical ability anywhere else in the organization.

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