Can careers be launched from the university of life without a formal degree?
Graduates are flooding the market in ever-increasing numbers to very uncertain job prospects, many with significant debts to pay off for the privilege. Employers are sifting through thousands of applications from candidates with soft degrees covering courses as disparate as puppetry to the ubiquitous media studies qualification. Large numbers of graduates emerge from the process with seemingly limited life skills and even basic literacy and numeracy deficiencies. Companies complain about the difficulties of identifying talent and recruiters bemoan how woefully unprepared candidates from this age group are for the job search process. Many school leavers are fearful about incurring increasing levels of student debt. Many parents are asking me the question is it really necessary today to go to university? Could their children launch a successful career without a college degree?
My answer is – that depends.
In general terms there is persuasive research that there is indeed a correlation between completed further education and anticipated future earnings. There are also specific careers where having a university education will certainly be mandatory, simply because of an absolute need to guarantee a high level knowledge base within a certain field. I’m thinking of the traditional “hard” courses: medicine, sciences, engineering or law. I would definitely not want to have an unqualified doctor perform surgery on me, or to cross a bridge not built by an engineer or have untrained chemists create drugs (although many do – but nothing legal). There has been a proliferation of soft courses during times of prosperity and certain vocational occupations where entry previously was via school-leaving qualifications and on the job training, now require a university degree.
But will this change in harder economic times?
Strong educational achievements are generally perceived, not necessarily correctly, to be a formal indicator of a higher level of general intelligence, focus and diligence. Those of us that know students, understand well that university can be about none of the above for many. But whether universities produce candidates who are better equipped for the workplace or even life itself is one of fierce debate. Not having these qualifications does not suggest a lack of these skills or potential abilities – just a lack of proof via an education system. We all know that many successful people whether in business or other sectors did not go to university. Richard Branson, Mary Kay Ash, Bill Gates, Stephen Spielberg to name but a few. We have also been served in restaurants by waiters/waitresses with a whole string of letters after their names.
As we have switched to what Peter Drucker describes as a ” knowledge based economy” , there has been a cultural and status shift from working with a product (hands) to working with information (the head). I’m wondering if now, as employers struggle to identify and weed out suitable talent and graduates have difficulty entering the workplace at the right level, how that will change.
Robin Marantz Henig in an article for the New York Times “What is it about 20-somethings?” suggests that this age group are delaying the growing up process. As with most age groups my thoughts are that they are simply responding to the cultural, economic and technological developments of their time. As many countries have increased the number of students that complete further education, creating certain expectations in the process, we have recently seen a reduction of entry-level jobs with the worst economic downturn for many years. Having grown up in a relatively prosperous period, raised by parents who are affluent enough to support their children financially, sometimes until their mid 20s, many are now more than a little lost when those job prospects don’t materialise.
They are returning to the family nest as Boomerang Kids, as home in luxury chez mum and dad, is infinitely more appealing than a lower standard house share which is what they can afford – if they can afford anything at all. The banking system obligingly indulged, or dare I say it, created, a pattern of instant gratification by giving young ( non-working) people extended credit lines. Remember those ads “consolidate all your debts… go on a dream holiday now” and whole businesses grew up around a new trend for taking a gap year or even years, with parents paying thousands for their offsprings to dig a well in Africa or pick grapes in Australia. Technology has made communication instant , so they are not used to waiting ..for anything much at all, which is a source of frustration.
As we move into a period of economic uncertainty where all the goal posts are being moved, workplace structures are changing and I actually suspect it won’t matter how certain skills are acquired. Further education programmes, particularly the softer arts courses, will surely be cut as countries try to address the issues of chronic national debt. One thing to focus on for sure is the acquisition of real marketable skills. This can be done equally well outside a formal education system, as well as within it. Distance and e learning are emerging forces for adding to a qualification portfolio. We are already seeing a gentle return to the creation of old school apprenticeships. What individuals do with their different experiences is what counts and that is not related to their educational level.
Many of us have interviewed enough unemployable, unintelligible masters graduates to know that to be the case. I wonder if for the first time in many years the university of life will make a comeback and lose the stigma that became attached to it.
What do you think?