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Education Matters

August 11th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ve been struck with a case of writer’s block for some reason or another.  It may be because I decided I needed to write the hell out of this article since it left such a strong impression on me, but for whatever reason I haven’t found the right inspiration.

So a breakdown of our current unemployment by the BLS, nicely represented graphically by Matt Yglesias, nicely crystallized a few loose thoughts I had on the subject of education. Yglesias’ simple bar graph of the differences in unemployment is striking – the Great Recession is so different for people with degrees than it is for those without.

My personal experience drives this home for me (as stories about ourselves often do).  I was laid off from a great job last year, and experienced a bit of the anxiety and uncertainty of being unemployed. But I can’t claim much kinship with the long term unemployed, because I was unemployed for almost exactly 6 weeks. Good luck explains a lot of that, but I also have a bachelor’s degree, and work in the services sector. Exactly the kind of person that our new economy favors.

I struggle with the common idea that a degree has intrinsic value beyond the knowledge it should represent. A finance director I used to work with summed it up nicely when he said (roughly) “completing a degree shows drive and commitment, which are important attributes for a financial analyst.”  He then dismissed a candidate who had the right experience, interviewed well, and for whom the only reservations were the lack of a degree, and an apparent lack of interest in completing one.

I won’t argue with that sentiment because I agree that spending 2, 4, or more years completing a degree takes drive and commitment. But I don’t think the converse is true, that those without degrees are lacking these things. Using degrees as a proxy for these and other intangibles is lazy, and has uncomfortable implications around race and achievement.

Of course this is a complex issue, and I don’t have any real answers.  But I think it’s important that recruiters and HR folks think long and hard about what we’re actually trying to get from educational requirements.  They’re a blunt instrument at best.

Update (8/17): a friend who’s looking for work just had an interview cancelled because she doesn’t have a BA. She’s been working on completing it while working full time, so I’d submit that it shows she’s extra committed. She’s been working in accounting and finance for 10 years. Does the fact that this company noticed her BA is pending change anything about the relevance of her experience? Nope.

  1. Brock
    August 27th, 2010 at 10:59 | #1

    I have an MBA and still can’t find work. I’m not sure what’s wrong. Maybe you could work with me.

  2. Mark
    August 27th, 2010 at 11:49 | #2

    I empathize-it’s a tough job market, even for people with advanced degrees. Employers want it all in a down job market: experience, skills, and degrees. I’m happy to help you as I can-I’ll send a note shortly.

  1. September 27th, 2010 at 11:21 | #1