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.