Tuesday, September 22, 2015


College as vocational school?

I read an article the other day about how few people really work in the field they studied in college.

And, after I stopped laughing, I realized that this article must have been conceived and written by someone quite young. It wasn't until post WWII that college was ever supposed to be a "vocational school." 

Oh, there were nursing schools, and teachers' colleges. and postgraduate "professional" schools for engineering, art, music, medicine and law, but a bachelor's degree was designed to prepare you for LIFE. To provide you with the background and language to solve problems, lead others, and become contributing members of society. To see the world in a larger perspective so you could understand and adapt to change. Ask any lawyer and they will tell you that law school doesn't teach you how to be a lawyer. (Or, you could just watch My Cousin Vinny) A degree in Medicine doesn't make you a working physician--- residency and internship does. A degree in music does not turn someone into a composer. 

Then, in the post WWII era, we began offering mainstream degrees in Business.  Oh, Wharton has been around since 1881 (the US' oldest b-school) and Harvard Business has been around since 1908, but, according to Forbes, he number of MBAs issued has jumped 623% since 1970; (education master’s degrees increased only 103% during that time.)  Suddenly, there are lots of MBA's out there, all shooting for the same jobs.  And suddenly, all those MBA's said, "well I have the credentials now, so I must be ready for the corner office and the golden parachute."
 But an MBA isn't-- and shouldn't be thought of-- as a vocational certificate.

The business world is changing faster and faster every year, and, if you treat your degree as "one and done" vocational education, your education cannot keep pace with demands.

When my grandfather was a young man, he learned a vocation-- he was a baker -- and he went through an apprenticeship and perfected that skill and became more competent, but, when he retired, the way he did his job was pretty much the same as it was when he was 20, or 40, or 50 or even 60. The best cinnamon buns ever made still took flour and sugar and raisins and yeast.

When my father was a young man, he learned many different skills--(so many, my grandfather despaired he would never find a career)  He worked in restaurants, he learned to hang wallpaper, he was a salesman, he worked in a jewelry store, and he worked in a steel mill. Then he went into the army, and discovered he had another set of skills-- he was a great leader, strategist and planner-- and when he came home from war he took the steel mill experience and the military experience and he took some GI Bill money and went to college, and he became a manager for a multinational company.

He worked at that job until he was fully vested in his pension-- 30 plus years-- and then he retired. He grew bored with retirement, and he took the people and logistics skills he learned in his corporate life and spent another 10 years trying to make government run like a business.

The world my grandfather and father worked in was not bequeathed to my brothers and I.
EJ started out studying engineering, then realized his calling was the law. He became an attorney, and has been practicing for  very long time, but though his title remains the same, the nature of the practice has changed as technologies and markets have changed. If he hadn't adapted and contunued to learn and grow as the world changed, he would not have been even a fraction as successful as he has.

My other brother began in the Telecom world, when that meant a landline phone in your house or office and offices still had switchboard operators, and everyone got their service from Bell.  If you think he didn't have to grow and change to remain viable, remember that when my brothers started college, there was no NASA, there was no internet, and even IBM didn't know why on earth private citizens would ever want a personal computer. (let alone one a wireless one you could carry in your pocket) 

I am a bit younger than they are  Bill Gates and I are contemporaries. Do you think the work world has changed a bit in OUR working lifetimes? I was in the computer bay today, waiting for my new laptop to be imaged. I handed the technician a 512 GB flash drive about the size of a tootsie roll midget, and watched him insert it and hit "run." At times like this I am reminded of the 3GB hard drive I replaced in my SOTA IBM desktop PC with a 12 GB drive, and wondering how I would ever come up with enough information to fill it.  Changes?  Constantly. Not just

Do you know anyone who is still working for the same company they were hired by right out of college?  If  you do, is the company still doing the same thing? Probably not.  

We typically hear that people will make 3 to 7 major career shifts over the course of our working lives. Personally, I've made about 4. Did I imagine this is how I thought I'd make my living when I was 20? Are you kidding me?  The career I have today didn't even appear as a separate option in college catalogues or HR manuals at the time.

So, if you (or your kid) are about to "complete" your education and are out in the job market, stop thinking of education as a thing you complete in order to prepare for a career. It hasn't worked that way for a couple of generations.  

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