A practical, vocational college major is a terrible fucking idea

Colleges Don't Prepare Students For Work

Honestly, sometimes when I look at the gap between “what universities do to prepare students” and “how potential employers view students,” I silently weep to myself. The gap between A and B is a fucking chasm; it’s about 1,000 times wider than the Grand Canyon itself. Here’s a good article / conversation with UPenn management professor Peter Capelli that kind of encapsulates the entire idea, including this section — which should make you go punch a rabbit in the mouth:

But for parents, of course, there’s a big issue of how much money you’re spending for this and whether there will be a pay-off at the end of it. So at the moment there’s an awful lot of concern. Parents are worrying, “Is my kid going to get a job?” The employers are complaining, “We want to hire people with a particular set of skills.” And colleges are kind of in the middle, but it’s a peculiar supply chain problem. At the moment, the parents and the students — potential students — are so far removed from where the employers are in terms of information, but also just in terms of timing. The employers are saying, “Here’s what we want, but it will be five years. We’re not making any promises.” And the kids are trying to pick majors and colleges to go to based on the job market. And it’s really a mess right now, is the punch line. 

I’ve told some of my friends recently — maybe last 1-2 years — that I honestly think college (and graduate school) are more for the parents than the actual attendees. I feel the same way about weddings in a lot of aspects. People tell you on your wedding day that it’s “your special day” (more if you’re a female, obviously) and that’s true and it’s fun and great and all that, but in reality it’s a party thrown by your parents that typically involves a good chunk of their friends.

Part of this attitude is that I’m probably a fairly depressed and questionable person, and part of it is because my own graduate school experience was absolutely nothing like I thought it would be. Rather than a bunch of people interested in the same basic topics I was/am, it was mostly a lot of 22 year-old fall down drunk bastards talking about the next party, getting stressed about eight-page papers, and gossiping at lunch. I mostly hated it. So maybe that all colors my experience; by “maybe” I mean “almost 100 percent definitely.”

Here’s the thing, though: you talk to a real tried-and-true “business” guy, he’ll talk about academics in the conventional sense — ivory towers and all that. You talk to a hardcore, 30-years-of-research academic and he’ll talk about business guys as misguided, hyper-focused on the minute details, and not understanding the broad scope (“of the literature…”). The two sides don’t talk to each other; they don’t understand each other. (Sometimes they do, but I’ve seen that to be pretty rare.)

The logical way to explain this is that business is supposed to move pretty quickly and change often, whereas higher education can take some time in changing — anyone reading this who works for a big university would probably argue that change can be slow in that environment.

As a result, what colleges and programs are teaching isn’t always in line with what employers are seeking — and that’s a second-tier argument, because the first-tier should be, “Is the job of an university to find people jobs?”

I’ve just mostly ranted above, so let me try to bring this back into some form of comprehensible narrative.

Here’s the point (I think): employers don’t really know what they want; they really just want more people to lessen the “busy busy busy” narrative they’re hearing from their current people, and the most logical thing to find — the person that can really hit the ground running — is someone who does essentially the exact same thing at another company that’s kind of like yours. No one really gives a shit about leadership development, so that’s what HR and hiring managers are looking for: a set of skills already attained.

Problem is, schools/universities, etc. — they’re geared towards the acquisition of skills. They’re more aspirational. What hiring managers want is more functional. The alignment isn’t there.

Now here’s Tier II of the problem: most parents of 18 year-olds nowadays? When they were 18, there were professions and job skills and the climate was a little easier to navigate — so if they’re insulated from new information, they’re looking at it like “Well, this type of job or this type of major is secure.”

The thing is, no major is secure right now — pretty much anything can be outsourced at some level.

It’s kind of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation — because right now, pursuing a narrow skill set could hurt you (there are no jobs in that skill set as you’re finishing), but pursuing a broad skill set could hurt you too (“not really what we’re looking for,” says ass-clown hiring manager No. 4).

As a result of all this and the uncertain nature of what jobs will be hot and when they’ll be hot, literally the only real thing that matters in the process is how well you network and connect to others. If you can do that well, you should be OK, even though you might not end up in your ideal field or job among the first couple of stops.

Interesting to consider, then: when the systems aren’t delivering properly, the only true thing that matters is the relationships. Wouldn’t it be cool if people thought about work that way?

Ted Bauer


  1. Too much of college curricula is based on theory instead of applicable skills. Be that as it may, the general education requirements for a 4 year college degree at an accredited institution should be enough of a foundation to allow a person to successfully function in most positions. If a person has demonstrated that he/she can learn new things, then the majority of everything else is simply preference.

    Essentially, many “professional” jobs are glorified digital paper pushing. Employers act like their open positions require such specific skills and experience, but they really just require an ability to learn and adapt to new things.

    • Agree about 1,000 percent with the second paragraph here — all you really need for pretty much any job I’ve ever had is the ability to learn and adapt to new things/concepts/software/managers.

  2. Although colleges and business could collaborate better, it isn’t the function of colleges to train workers. That belongs to companies, which used to develop their workers because they understood it was on them to do so (and would get a return on it). That’s forgotten, resulting in the hiring paralysis so aptly described by Peter Cappelli. Some suggest expanding community colleges or a German style apprenticeship to fill the gap, which is likely a good idea. Yet that has limits, as much of the old-style training was by definition company specific. Even experienced workers switching companies need that type of retraining.

    Of course blaming workers for corporate shortcomings is old hat. Like when 35 years ago mismanaged companies started justifying mass layoffs by saying they were eliminating deadwood, unfairly tarnishing millions of workers, a taint that persists to this day. Now its a bogus “skills shortage” that Peter (and others) have discredited, again tainting millions of capable workers. How did we become a nation of dolts in less than one generation? Did all our collective brains suddenly fall out all at once?

Reply If You'd Like