It’s graduation season, and honored guests clutching honorary degrees are speechifying at commencements all around the country. In a recent story on National Public Radio, quotes from celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Bloomberg all included the same catch phrase: “Follow your passion.” The exhortation has become so common that the news story was about one poor Ivy Leaguer who found himself unable to enunciate his passion.
Fortunately, the fact that he made it as far as graduating from an elite institution probably bodes well for his chances of eventually doing, and being able to afford to do, what interests him. For the rest of the class of 2013, like those for several years before them, the ability to follow their passion will often be impeded by their desire to eat.
Unemployment for new college graduates remains stubbornly high. In a luncheon with an official of the Federal Reserve a few week ago, he noted an anomaly. Unemployment is at the highest sustained rate in 70 years, while the number of help wanted ads are also at an all-time high. The reluctant conclusion is that we have a workforce unable to fill the positions available. From an employer’s perspective, I see three reasons for this disconnect.
1. Just a “college degree” isn’t enough
For years, I and many other employers would use “college degree preferred” as a litmus test to identify people who could set a goal, plan to reach it, and accomplish what they set out to do. With the advent of helicopter parenting and institutional success measured in six-year graduation rates, a Bachelor’s degree often means someone who had the financial means (or the debt capacity) to hang around long enough to amass 120 or so credits. Two day a week class schedules and having mom fill out your course choices online (or pay a consultant to do it for you) doesn’t develop much strength of character.
At the same time, technology and pressure on profits have caused employers to back away from being the trainers of first resort. For many jobs, like entry level sales and retail branch management, systems have replaced decision making, and those jobs can be “dumbed down” to people who don’t have a degree-holder’s salary expectations.
2. A college degree isn’t what it used to be.
The quest for paying customers has caused colleges to expand to unprecedented levels. Here in Texas, UT now operates 9 campuses under the UT brand, enrolling 192,000 students. Texas A&M runs 8 more, with 83,000 enrollees. No one outside of academia pretends that all of those students are receiving the same level of education as ten or twenty years ago.
A part-time employee of mine showed me her class schedule a few years ago. By credits earned she was a junior, and taking upper level courses. Her choices included titles like “The Role of Women in Architecture,” “Non-traditional Literature,” and “Minority Contributions in American History.” When asked why she wasn’t focusing more on her business major she replied “Because these are all required for graduation!” I’m all for expanding people’s horizons, but not at the expense of teaching them what they need to know.
3. There is no “right” to succeed in your passion
The Constitution enshrines the “pursuit of happiness” as a basic human right. It does not make it anyone’s obligation to ensure that you succeed. We’ve raised a generation to believe that success is the inevitable outcome of effort. In a recent interview with a couple who were protesting high school teacher salaries, they complained that their wages were insufficient to support $300,000 in student loan debt. His Master’s degree was in comparative literature. Her PhD was in philosophy. Who told them that was a good investment?
Employers are scrambling to fill positions in programming, engineering and skilled trades. They share stories of graduates with little or no pertinent skills who want to focus their job interviews on salaries, advancement expectations and benefits. There is a fundamental disconnect between what our education system is providing and what our employment market is seeking. Perhaps “Follow your passion” isn’t the best advice we could be giving.