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Employers increasingly prefer generalists over specialists

All of a sudden there is lots being written about the trend of employers hiring generalists more than specialists. What is so disturbing is the disconnect between this reality and way too many policymakers pushing our education and training providers towards preparing students for a trade or profession.

In a world where generalists are what increasingly is being rewarded, the emphasis on occupation-specific skills in our education and training systems is not good for either students or the economy. Knowing coding or welding or accounting is not what matters most to having a successful 40-year career. All of those occupation skills have a shorter and shorter half life. It’s not that knowing how to code, weld or do accounting is irrelevant to getting a job today, it is those are the icing on the cake career-ready skills not the foundation skills. 

Two recent books detail this trend towards generalists: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. And How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World, by New York Times economic columnist Neil Irwin. Both highly recommended.

Fatherly has an article about Range entitled Why Parents Should Raise Kids to be Generalists, not Specialists. But maybe the best place to start is an Atlantic article written by Jerry Useem entitled At Work, Expertise is Falling Out of Favor. For those who prefer listening to reading, there is a terrific NPR podcast which starts with Useem’s article.

All of these books, articles and podcast make clear that what employers value now–and, almost certainly, will even more going forward––are generalists, those with broad, rigorous, non-occupation specific skills.

As readers of this blog know, we think the best description of those skills are the 6Cs from the book Becoming Brilliant. Collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creativity and confidence.

This trend of employers preferring generalists is consistent with Google’s findings that STEM skills were not the defining characteristic of their most successfully employees. Of the focus groups we did on the path those without a four-year degree took to get jobs paying at least $40,000 a year. Of Heather McGowan’s framing of losing job skills being the operating system, a job skills the apps. And of George Anders’ findings of the value of a liberal arts degree.

My summary of all these writings about future work: All of us will need generalist skills––no matter what our first job/occupation is––and most of us, at least for a first job, will need some specialist skills. But where we have gotten off track, across the board in education and training, is which are the foundation skills. To use Heather McGowan’s terrific analogy the generalist skills are the operating system we all need; the specialist skills are the apps  (with a shorter and shorter half life). So it is not either/or but both/and for most of us, but where the most important 40-year-career-ready skills are the 6Cs/generalist skills.

To make matters worse too many of us are telling parents and kids that the only path to prosperity is to be a specialist in the trades or STEM. Which is not supported when you look at today’s data, let alone what is likely to happen in the future. So our messaging even narrows the fields where one can do well as a specialist.

The other reality of all this emphasis on learn a trade or profession is that it completely misses the reality that most of us got to where we are today through our second and third jobs, not the first. It is the promotion job that makes one prosperous for most.  And that for most our first job specialist skills were not what got us the promotion jobs. It was the generalist skills.

If, as all these readings say, increasingly rigorous generalist skills are what the labor market most demands––rather than learning a trade or profession–– we need to rethink completely what we mean by career ready and to redefine our definition of career-ready skills. This is the core of the education policy debate we need to be having.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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