The degree debates continue as they always have. Without a doubt, higher education institutions, specific industry segments, and talent management professionals must thoroughly assess how best to equip students and workers to ensure that the job candidate pipeline is vibrant. Sometimes academic degrees are a part of that process and sometimes they are not. Other avenues of job-specific training are also a factor both before and after the candidate is hired.
Simultaneously, businesses are less willing to train on the job than they used to be and they expect more job candidates to show up ready to roll from day one. Unfortunately, this attitude is shortsighted as Peter Coy reports (“Job Training that Works” Bloomberg Businessweek, 11/24/14–11/30/14, pp. 6–7):
“The gulf between what companies need and what workers have to offer remains huge. In most fields, companies have steadily reduced the amount of on-the-job training they provide, says Chauncy Lennon, who leads a $250 million New Skills at Work project for the charitable arm of JPMorgan Chase. . . . In 2011, an Accenture survey of U.S. employees found that only 21 percent had received employer-provided formal training in the previous five years. ‘A lot of small businesses have this fear that “If I train my people, I’ll lose them to ExxonMobil.” Our research shows the opposite. If you don’t train people, you’re definitely going to lose them,’ says Emad Rizkalla, founder and CEO of Bluedrop Performance Learning, an online education company.” (p. 7)
Immediate continuous efforts to fix this disconnect are needed, especially given that September’s job numbers showed about 5 million open jobs while 9 million people were searching for jobs. When all the pegs are square and all the holes are round, then a realignment of resources is required. In this case, what is needed is a realignment of talent and jobs. Granted, many different approaches exist on exactly how we perform that realignment, but I remain convinced that throwing academic degrees out the window is not one of them.
I certainly concede that an academic degree’s value can vary depending on economic conditions. For example, Robert Reich cites numerous reasons why a college degree may not pack the punch it once did (“Is a Diploma Really Worth the Cost? You Need College, But It Gets You Nowhere” The Kansas City Star, November 27, 2014, p. C7):
“Millions of people in developing nations are now far better educated, and the Internet has given them an easy way to sell their skills in advanced economies such as the United States. . . . The demand for well-educated workers in the United States seems to have peaked around 2000 and fallen since. . . . The starting wages of college graduates have actually dropped since 2000. . . . Although a college education is now a prerequisite for joining the middle class, the middle class is in lousy shape.”
For all the good or bad that we hear on the value of higher education, we must be careful not to be blinded to some fundamental undeniable truths:
- College and graduate degrees will always be substantial formal credentials by which untold numbers of decision makers will evaluate you.
- The academic degree assures you and society that you have acquired a specific body of knowledge and expertise.
- The content, wisdom, and insight you acquired via a degree program will stick with you for the rest of your life, continuously adding value to every aspect of your professional and personal life.
- The more competitive the economy becomes, the more competitive you become by virtue of having a degree.
- Once you have earned an academic degree, no one and no circumstance can ever take that accomplishment away from you.
The above arguments are important because increasingly we are hearing despairing, doom-and-gloom, capitulating voices decrying the sheepskin’s value. These voices affirm that the logical, practical, and economic justifications for earning a degree no longer exist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even Reich, after his lengthy delineation of reasons that degrees may be less valuable than they used to be, affirms that the person with a degree will still have an edge:
“Given all this, a college degree is worth the cost because it at least enables a young person to tread water. Without the degree, young people can easily drown. . . . A college education can give young people tools for leading full and purposeful lives, and having meaningful careers.”
Additionally, I have always been impressed by the unemployment statistics. Anyone can argue the relative merits of pursuing higher education or choosing not to pursue it. Pros and cons certainly exist. Nevertheless, for the person who desires to improve his or her odds significantly of being gainfully employed, higher education is an extremely serious factor.
The seasonally adjusted October 2014 unemployment rate for persons not having a high school diploma is 7.9% (Bureau of Labor Statistics). Having a high school diploma drops that rate to 5.7% and some college or a two-year degree drops it further to 4.8%. Pretty good trending, would you not agree? Finally, if we look at people having a four-year degree, a graduate degree, or a doctoral degree, the unemployment rate is a low 3.1%. Not bad, given our rough economy.
Higher education’s value is especially clear when you consider the range of these numbers over the level of higher education. Look at the two ends of the spectrum: less-than-high school (7.9%) versus a four-year degree or higher (3.1%). Consistently, regardless of the measured time, the unemployment rate for a less-than-high-school-educated worker is two to four times larger than for the college-degreed worker. This is why, when people seek my counsel about career planning, higher education is always one of my main emphases. Education pays. Degrees still rock.
Regardless of how good or bad the economy is, regardless of how many individual academic and career disasters can be cited, and regardless of how loudly the antidegree segment howls, you are still in a better position having a degree than not having a degree.
Why not make higher education a priority in your life and in the lives of those you influence? That priority will positively affect your life, your career, and our society.