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.