Education Creates Jobs?

Just ask any English major – just getting that English degree created a job for them, right?

When I travel for business, I try to strike up conversations with cabbies, because, first, I find it rude to ride in a car with somebody and pretend they’re not there, and second, cabbies are  often fascinating. On two occasions I remember clearly, my cabby turned out to be a very well educated recent immigrant.  In each case, they had graduate degrees that wold qualify them for fairly lucrative professional careers. They came to America and drove cabs because there were no jobs for them back in the old country, and their degrees didn’t map exactly to American requirements. So they drove cabs while they considered the work needed to punch their ticket here for the careers they’d originally studied for.

As is so often the case, the conventional wisdom surrounding education is exactly the opposite of reality: In the real world, jobs create education. If there’s money in it, people will train for it. If there’s not money in it, few, baring government intervention, will (the free market would almost never pay what the schools pay for a typical education degree, for one example – otherwise, teacher turnover would be even higher than it is).

And again, as is so often the case, education does not equal schooling. The biggest real life example from recent history is computer science. Most great programmers do not get that way by getting a computer science degree from a prestigious university. Most great programmers get that way by hacking – just coding away, rubbing elbows with other coders, trying stuff. Big companies like the certified programmers – excuse me, Software Engineers – not because they are better at writing programs than the cowboys and hackers, but because they’ve been housebroken to corporate culture by having to connect all the dots, deal with all the red tape and kiss all the behinds needed to get that degree – a process that well prepares them for life in a big company, and, moreover, weeds out the troublemakers who want the creative freedom to do the right thing. Another way to put it: Rolling out a global business process management system that’s going to be used by in-house employees for the next decade whether they like it or not? Then well-schooled developers are your ticket. Trying to crack a consumer market with way-cool creative software? Then you’d better be prepared to saddle up with the cowboys.

Anyway, it’s an illusion that getting a degree somehow creates a better job for you – the better jobs are created by people trying to make money, or the government trying to fund its base. (Aside: one way governments fund their bases is by creating certification hurdles for government jobs – not only do they fund the base by hiring the person with the right degrees, they also supply demand for the services of the schools that provide those degrees.) People are wise to this, which is why the percentage of Americans with4-year college degrees has held steady at about 30% for the last 40 years.

Note that this steady state was an effect, not a cause – the people getting college degrees in the 70’s found out that it wasn’t a ticket to a better life than their typically less educated parents had (I certainly fall into this class). They found out that their stupider classmates (based on class position) took jobs with the government, as teachers and bureaucrats, and that the smart people couldn’t get jobs as university teachers very often, and that the drop-outs (Gates, Jobs, Wozniak, etc.) often did better than they did, and that they themselves weren’t a lot better off than their high school classmates that went vo-tech or directly into the job market. Most galling, the socially connected did, as a group, the best of all. In other words, what was supposed to be the point of all that money, time and effort devoted to college for the average guy?

Now, I love the undergrad education I got. My graduate degree is high-end vo-tech – I did it for the money. If nobody were hiring MBAs I wouldn’t have done it – the job created the education.  I’m one of the winners (until the next whim of Goldman Sachs indirectly puts my behind on the street). But people in general sniffed out the problem way before it became a topic of public discussion – college is an expensive gamble. Having a degree is no guarantee of anything, let alone a better job than you’d get otherwise.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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