Thursday, March 7, 2013

A College Education for All?

National Review Online has unearthed a warning that famed management consultant Peter Drucker issued in 1950. That’s right, 63 years ago.  (Via Maggie’s Farm)

At that time, Drucker outlined, with exemplary clarity, the problems that would arise when we decide to give everyone a college education, that is when we let "the schoolmaster" to choose who is qualified for management:

The popular substitute for advancement from the ranks – a college education for all able young people – is not really acceptable. The abilities which make for scholastic success are not the abilities the enterprise needs. By asking the schoolmaster to pick management, the enterprise will deny itself the very men it needs most: the entrepreneur, the innovator, the risk-taker. The process is also self-defeating. All but the very poorest will go to college and will then expect a managerial position as of right, being too proud for subordinate jobs but unable to find any other. To make the degree the passport to promotion is certain to debauch education; it will become “quickie” training in the latest fad and in readily salable skills. But a free society requires an educational system dedicated to training of character and to the education of leaders.

Drucker’s points are especially salient in the light of this report from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

 Employers value a four-year college degree, many of them more than ever.

Yet half of those surveyed recently by The Chronicle and American Public Media's Marketplace said they had trouble finding recent graduates qualified to fill positions at their company or organization. Nearly a third gave colleges just fair to poor marks for producing successful employees. And they dinged bachelor's-degree holders for lacking basic workplace proficiencies, like adaptability, communication skills, and the ability to solve complex problems.

"Woefully unprepared" is how David E. Boyes characterized the newly minted B.A.'s who apply to his Northern Virginia technology consulting company.

What gives? These days a bachelor's degree is practically a prerequisite for getting your résumé read—two-thirds of employers said they never waive degree requirements, or do so only for particularly outstanding candidates. But clearly the credential leaves employers wanting. While they use college as a sorting mechanism, to signal job candidates' discipline and drive, they think it is falling short in adequately preparing new hires.

It means that Peter Drucker was a prophet before his time and that no one heard what he was saying.


CatherineM said...

I am an executive assistant. When I started as a secretary 25 years ago, secretaries were highly trained and professional individuals from secretarial schools. It was a year of training, but the best ones knew day one how to do the technicalities job perfectly. The only learning curve was understanding office politics.

Now, they are all college graduates who come in with no skills and looking to do something else. Many college graduates have never had a job before - not even McDonalds - because mom and dad foot the bill for everything.

It's a good thing I finished my BA part time (I wanted options and thought about teaching) as it turns out, my resume would not be selected even with 25 years of executive experience because in an online search of resumes, I would be sorted out of the running. Yet I am surrounded by amateurs with a B.A.

David Foster said...

Also, the number of secretaries/exec assistants in most organizations has been greatly reduced since the coming of e-mail and universal word processing.

Several years ago, I heard the CEO of a software company say:

"The main thing we have done with the computer revolution so far is to turn highly-paid executives into incompetent clerk-typists."

The BA requirement is of course insane, but then it's insane for a lot of other jobs, too. Part of the reason why people do this is just to cut down on the flood of resumes; the problem is that they wind up selecting for the wrong things.

Sam L. said...

Well, when an employer can be accused and raked over the coals by various gummint agencies for trying to find a good hire, the BA/BS is the only thing left.

Global Culture Buff said...

Hi Stuart!

About a year or so ago I recall you wrote a blog somewhere here about a particular difference between (I believe it was) Japanese culture and Turkish culture and posited that Turkish culture was "therapy culture" to its extreme, though not providing any stats as to the number of Turks in therapy.

Your premise was that Turks were not straighforward communicators and would often communicate the opposite of what they meant, in order to maintain social harmony, whereas the Japanese were straightfoward and this difference is why Japan is much economically stronger than Japan.

Well I'd like to share these two videos from a Japanese woman explaining here culture here, which actually says the opposite of what you did.

Japanese Won't Say "No"

Unique Japanese Behaviour

David Foster said...

Sam...really, adding a BA/BS requirement to the job specification doesn't do much to protect you from lawsuits and rabid regulators. You still need to distinguish among the hundreds or thousands of applicants you will get who DO have degrees.

Interestingly, the original Grigg vs Duke Power case (which ruled that IQ tests couldn't be used for hiring for certain positions because of lack of demonstrated job relevance) ALSO ruled that high school diplomas couldn't be required for those jobs for precisely the same reason. Not sure what happened to this part of the decision in the successive legislative and judicial history.

Also interestingly, Peter Drucker (way back in 1969) said he thought it should be illegal to ask about educational credentials when hiring. Possibly partly tongue in cheek, but no question he was concerned about credentialism...which has gotten a LOT worse since then.

Anonymous said...

Great points, Catherine. Credentialism reigns supreme, but professionalism is undervalued. Besides, the importance of a college degree is even more important when most of those who have a diploma know it is meaningless to their role. That way, it becomes a ticket in so that everyone can justify the inefficiency of the four years spent studying mundane, irrelevant subjects. And yes, I am a college graduate from a top-25 U.S. undergrad liberal arts program. I thought it was largely meaningless and pointlessly expensive.

It's interesting that, back in the day, most higher-level managers and certainly all executives had personal secretaries. Now most of them do not. The trade-off? High-level leaders are left doing mundane world processing (David's point). But I actually think there's something more dangerous that is often overlooked: indecipherable handwriting, lousy grammar, poor communication skills, personal disorganization, and lack of follow-up. Secretaries used to make that kind of stuff click. In short, it's ineffective communication contributing to massive levels of re-work. So now, if an exec is out of the office, everyone else is powerless until he/she returns. With a secretary, they can be directed to the proper resources. Saying "they're up on the server" is not enough.

Even more importantly, the biggest hit is to outside customer relationships. Many managers and execs don't get a lunch anymore, much less go out to lunch with co-workers or, most importantly, their customers and prospects. They are busy, busy, busy doing all kinds of busy-work, with much less time to connect with other human beings. Human skills is the top criterion for effective upper-level managers and executives. So, what happens with the gleeful green-visor-driven cost-cutting that passes for management oversight these days? Customer relationships and internal connections get the shaft. Managers spend all day submitting reports to cover someone's ass, and that someone never reviews them. Waste.

You may need a college education to be a skilled expert in some fields, but you do not need a college degree to provide basic customer service, which is 80% of the battle in business. And you can learn it quite well working at McDonald's. Catherine is also right that the person with the B.A. in philosophy or gender studies is not going to stick around long as an executive assistant when they're just climbing the ladder to the job they are entitled to as a magna cum laude from XYZ University. It's that kind of entitlement that is silently destroying this country.

No wonder service sucks. No wonder no one in upper-level management has time to answer your question. No wonder no one on the top floors knows what their customers think, or how the market is shifting. They never get outside. But they know Microsoft Office. It would make a good farce if it wasn't true.


David Foster said...

A related problem is the tendency of companies (and other organizations) to put together ridiculously long checklists of requirements for a job, often with the actual effect of de-emphasizing the attributes that matter most. See my post about Hunting the Five-Pound Butterfly.