Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Skills and Learning Versus A Piece of Paper

I have a few pieces of paper worth some coin...

A BS Degree, a Master's Degree, and two certifications from relatively prestigious universities...

I would argue they're not worth what the market suggests they are...

CEOforCities has been running a big campaign for a number of years that argues that cities can increase their per capita income by increasing the number of BA/BS degree's in their region. And they use the stats to suggest that your average HS grad make $33K a year, your average College Degree holder makes $58K a year... soooo, obviously for your city to prosper all ya gotta do is get ya some more college graduates.

And apparently college graduation makes a big difference in other areas as well... if you want to know how well a kid will do on standardized test, as this chart from prominent economist James Heckman from the University of Chicago shows, just look at his/her mothers education - 

Get a college degree you will make more money, your kids will do better... simple formula.

And finally, someone I admire is currently in a debate with someone I admire much less arguing essentially what these statistic argue - the great Vivek Wadwha and paypal Founder Peter Thiel have been doing a back and forth on this for years and while I generally agree with Professor Wadwah 99.9% of the time... in this case he's arguing for the necessity of getting that college degree and on this issue I can't buy the argument.  Briefly, here's why.

If 5000 college graduates moved to my poor, mostly rural town right now where would they work?  Give them all the same level of education I have... A Master's Degree in Sociology... would businesses flock to town to hire them?  Compare my education to a wiz kid website designer with no college... who's got more options in the market place right now?  Not the old guy with the Sociology degree.  Now, granted I'm good at what I do and I do have a number of options... but how many of my skills were learned because they sprinkled fairy dust on me in college and I magically got smart?  I'd argue none.  My pieces of paper have value in the market, only because they are pieces of paper with the right words on them, the skills I've developed to think, to negotiate, to lead... they were learned from mentors, and by reading, by listening, by doing... did I personally need the early discipline to show up at 8 o'clock classes, to take notes, etc., yes I did... was it imperative, was it the only way, was it the best way?  I don't think so.

In today's world it's about skills, it's about learning, it's about creating new competitive advantages... taking 4 years off to do so, and pay $100K for it... may not be the most effective and efficient way to do it.  Is it necessary if you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, a nurse... yes, it is... is it sufficient, even in those particular trades, to be excellent?  No.  No it's not.

I suggest we're entering a world where skills matter more than certifications... we've got to do a better job of teaching skills and creating a passion to learn new skills... we can't do either by forcing kids to take courses they don't won't to take, to get sheets of paper that have no meaning, even if, for now, they still have some value.