Not occupation specific education

A central theme of our work has been that successful careers, in an economy constantly changing due to globalization and technology, requires us to be good rock climbers, rather than ladder climbers. Career ladders, where you worked your way up within an occupational category, are increasingly toast in a world where jobs and occupations are less stable today than yesterday and almost certainly even less stable tomorrow than today.

This new reality has led us to advocate for an education that builds broad skills (like the skills recommended by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning) rather than narrow occupation-specific skills. This, of course, is counter to the new conventional wisdom that we should reemphasize vocational training in high schools and move higher education––both community colleges and universities––away from the liberal arts and towards developing skills needed for a good paying first job, particularly in STEM fields. Big mistake for student, employers and the economy!

Peter Cappelli, director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania, has just published a new book entitled Will College Pay Off? The Wharton School interviewed Cappelli about the themes of the book. The podcast is worth listening to. What follows is an extended excerpt from the podcast. It makes the point about as well as I have heard why occupation-specific education is not the path to good paying forty year careers. Cappelli says:

One of the things I worry about with the very specific, job-focused majors, is what do you do if you don’t get a job in that major? You’re an international tourism major — which is a real major, by the way — and the international tourist agencies are not hiring the year you graduate. What are you going to do? You would have been better off with a liberal arts degree. You’re taking a huge risk when you pursue these very focused degrees. It’s not free in the sense that there are a bunch of other courses that you could have been taking and a bunch of other things that you could have been learning beyond, say, memorizing international tourism laws and taxation relationships and things like that. There’s an opportunity that you’re losing that might have broadened you in ways that would allow you to do better after just your first job, which is the other point about these programs. They are just focusing on the first job out of school. What happens after that?

… If you look at the evidence on STEM, the first thing to note about it is it’s a bunch of different majors that actually don’t have an awful lot to do with each other. What the evidence seems to show is that people with math degrees and science degrees don’t do very well. There’s an interesting study in Texas that shows that students with sociology degrees make more money than students with biology degrees. It’s not true that in the sciences or in math there are even very many jobs for these folks, and they don’t pay very well.

It is true that if you look for the best paying jobs in the U.S. right out of college, those jobs are almost entirely engineering jobs. But the thing about them is they are not the same job every year. And being an engineer is not a general qualification right? If you’re a petroleum engineer, you can’t switch and become an electronics engineer or computer science engineer at the point of graduation. They are quite different and they are not substitutable across.

The thing about these very top jobs is that they change a lot year by year based on what’s going on in the economy. To give you an illustration of this, the hottest job in the U.S. for the last three years or so — and which pays about 50% more than the second highest paid job — has been petroleum engineers. A generation ago, or even ten years ago, those folks were waiting tables. There was no work for them. What happened was completely unpredictable. That was the discovery of fracking, which suddenly unleashed a bunch of exploration, and these folks were just really in demand.

But the thing that we know is, as soon as something like that really becomes hot, students pour into those majors and fields. That’s what happened in the last couple years. They are pouring in, and now oil prices have collapsed. The interest in oil exploration is also beginning to collapse and will shortly. The demand for these folks is clearly going to collapse as well because demand is falling and the supply of new graduates is going to pile into the market.

One of the things about pursuing these jobs which are at the top of the list is that you’re taking a lot of risk with those jobs because they may not be hot. It’s not all engineering jobs that are always hot. The second thing to think about with a lot of those jobs, particularly the IT jobs, is they don’t seem to last very long. People don’t stay in those jobs very long, so you get a great-paying job out of college; three years later, what are you going to do? You can do another programming job, and you can be a programmer forever. But they don’t lead anywhere long term. A lot of people give up on them altogether.



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