Last night a friend told me a fabulous story. He’s in the plastics industry and without going into the details of his career path, he never competed a BA degree. And yet. And yet. Yesterday afternoon, leaders in the semiconductor field that he specializes in were blown away by how he had solved a technical problem that had plagued them for months. Engineers with PhDs from M.I.T. and other high-ranking engineering schools practically hugged the guy at the end of their meeting because he had shown them a way out of a tough problem they could not solve, resulting in great cost savings to their company. His advice was free. But as a technical sales person, now he has the credibility to help them design the solution. His name is on the plans, and if it all goes through, his company will make another chunk of change. His comment to me was, “You know what’s crazy about all this? If I tried to get hired at that company, I wouldn’t even get hired as a receptionist!”
I had to laugh and then think a bit more about the moral of this story.
There is a difference between A. Credentials; B. Skills, knowledge, and experience; C. Specialization; and D. Market smarts. Everybody who wants to succeed in a local, regional, national, or global economy needs to pay attention to all four. Let me elaborate on each of these, which I think apply in good economic times as well as bad.
A. Credentials get you into the paper club. They are mostly valued by the gatekeepers of traditional full-time employment, HR Departments. HR likes paper because it has shown over time to mitigate the risk of hiring people that would hurt more than help their enterprise or their enterprise’s culture (enterprise being defined loosely as any not-for-profit, for-profit, or governmental organization or firm). It’s also a way to brand a company or institution (look at us: we have sixteen grads from M.I.T. on our team). The problem with credentials is that even with oversight from accrediting bodies in every region and for most every industry, it’s still just paper. Until HR departments decide that other pieces of a potential employee’s profile are more important (i.e. industry experience or the portfolios that are becoming more and more prevalent in educational environments), we are stuck with the requirement of getting at least one, and probably more, pieces of paper to compete.
B. As I have observed in workplaces around the globe, the problem with credentials is that they cannot and do not necessarily represent IN ANY WAY the real skills, knowledge, or experience acquired by its holder. The real learning that must occur for a person to acquire relevant skills, knowledge, or experience that bring value to an organization or a marketplace can not be easily represented by grades or a G.P.A. to start with. But more than that, educational organizations experience all kinds of inertia and historical baggage that keep them from delivering the real goods. They might try, but by and large, they will not give you the real skills, knowledge, and experience that will make you more marketable in a global economy. They’ll give you a piece of paper, though! That’s a start. I don’t think we should fret about this or try to make it different. Consumers just need to realize that they will have to make other investments in themselves outside of formal education to get the skills, knowledge, and experience that they really need to enter a field. My best advice in this regard is to seek out groups of professionals already working in your field of interest and FIND A MENTOR. True learning—the kind that really gives you an edge on the competition—is individual, costly, and doesn’t scale very easily. So budget for it. Plan to spend money to get yourself to where the living, breathing people in your field are, whether those are conferences, specialized workshops, user groups, or cutting-edge information, books, and media. This is where “80 percent of success in life is…” (Thank you, Woody.) You’re going to have to pay to learn from other people’s mistakes or pay while you make them yourself to learn from your experience. There is no shortcut here, no piece of paper that will get you to this level of general competency and true entrance into your field of choice. It’s about time. It’s about passion. And it will require more money than you already paid for your formal education. Good luck.
C. But that still might not be enough! Acceptance into your field of choice is just the beginning. You still have learn how to make pancakes that are different than all of the other pancakes in the marketplace. Plan to specialize in at least two, hopefully three, sub-specialties in your field that are, or will be, in demand. I can speak to this in terms of translation. Translation is a skill (B), increasingly in demand, that is acquired over time as one works with real clients. You can get a certificate (A), like I happen to have, but it’s not enough. To achieve proficiency, translators need to get real world experience demonstrating their skill when money is on the line. That’s the only way to really learn what it takes to be a good translator and whether or not you’re cut out for the job. Additionally, you need to have specialties that are in demand for your translation skills to count. Generally speaking, corporations, governments, banks, institutes, and NGOs contract translators for technical, scientific, medical, and legal translations. If you don’t have a specialty in one of those general domains, don’t count on making a great living as a translator any time soon. Even though I have the capacity to be a good translator and have practiced several of the skills involved in that career path, I can’t say that I truly specialize in any particular technical field, so I cannot compete for the most lucrative jobs out there. In the mean time, I take more general translation and transcription jobs as they come. But I can assure you, it’s not paying the bills.
D. Part of the reason why translation is not paying my bills is also part of the reason why my friend is doing so well in his career. Market smarts. He has proven to his employers to be able to quickly and flexibly retool when ever his company or a potential client has a problem that nobody’s solved before. He doesn’t go where everybody else goes. He goes for all of the hard problems that nobody else likes and he sticks with them until he closes the deal. I’m sure a lot of his prospects turn out to be dead-ends. But the end result of this decision over many years is that he has a variety of specialties under his belt that increase his chances of bringing value to his company. Since the market moves in waves, like a good surfer, he rides the good ones and jumps off on to a new wave just before the old one peaks. He doesn’t plan on staying with any one wave (product cycle) for longer than 5-7 years. Instead, he plants many seeds and tries to be smart about where he focuses his efforts.
So where is this all going? Yes, we all need to develop critical thinking skills. I like to think about the list of cognitive skills identified by Roger Shank, for example, or the plea for a new sensibility of what constitutes ability or intelligence by Sir Ken Robinson. But if we can’t apply our creativity and critical thinking skills to the ever-changing global job market or local communities, then what good will they be to our personal bottom line and the long-term security of our families? Again, I’m not fretting about the fact that they don’t teach this in school. They rarely will. And if they tried, I would still wonder whether it would make any appreciable difference in their graduates’ economic pathway (I’d love to be wrong about this!). Instead, I suggest that recent college grads or seniors about to graduate find mentors who are good at reading the signs of the market times in their chosen field(s) and then follow that advice so that they don’t specialize in things for which there is or will be no demand during their lifetimes.
A sobering post, I guess. But I’ve seen far too many college graduates (and I include myself here, in many instances) not only academically adrift, but economically adrift. And for very good, clearly identifiable reasons.
When it comes to education, I like to think outside of the box that has got us all into this pickle. What if we just stopped pretending that education for credentials was the same as education for judgment? What if we just streamlined the credentialing process so that people could get the piece of paper that is so important to HR departments, since I don’t suppose they will change any time soon. And then, what if we organized ourselves, in other non-credentialed ways, to provide citizens with the real skills, learning, and experience, specialties, and market smarts that they really need to succeed? Just a thought. I know that many in education would hate to see the piece of paper from their institution referred to as a mere credential. Devaluation for one institution is devaluation for everybody. But if that’s where we are in our conception and delivery of education, that’s where we are! And if unemployed college graduates can live in their just-tell-me-what-to-do-to-get-an-A dreamworld, then I’ll live in mine! There ARE better ways to take advantage of the immense human capital that surrounds us. I am convinced of that. If we could just release our grasp on tradition a little, let go of the prestige of history, we might have a chance of enjoying the opportunities and tackling the challenges that are all around us in the present.