Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The truth about college and careers

Written by Liz Ryan, instructor at the CU Leeds School of Business and CEO & Founder, the Human Workplace, for the Denver Post's blog on February 18, 2013.

I’m standing in the lobby of my kids’ high school, waiting for my twins to join me after their last-ever high school musical. My son had played trombone in the pit while my daughter sang onstage with the cast. How did I feel? Happy, sad, wistful, proud – exactly the way any parent would feel. In the lobby hung a wonderful photo portrait of the 500-member graduating class, and as I waited I scanned the photo, looking at familiar faces. Aah, I remember that little girl from Brownies, I thought, and that little boy from soccer, years ago. Another parent stood next to me, and he asked me “Is one of these seniors yours?”

“Yes,” I said, “this boy up here, and this girl.” “What are they planning to study in college?” asked the man. “They’re both going to study music,” I said. “Oh great,” said the man, as he turned and walked away. “More starving artists.”

I was too stunned to speak. I turned and looked at him as he strode across the lobby. Part of me wanted to run after him and shake him, and part of me wanted to wing my purse at the back of his neck. I rifled through my mental database. Had I seen that dad before? Oh yes, I had, I recalled. We sat on a committee together, umpteen years ago. That guy is a CPA in town. God bless him, I thought. God bless him and all the people who think that going to college means preparing yourself for a job, and nothing more. God bless those people, because they are deserving of our pity, if they have no more vision for a kid’s future (or their own) than “Get a practical degree, and get a stable job.”

College is not trade school. Trade school itself is not trade school, in the sense that you go in one end of a chute and come out the other end job-ready. Every kind of educational experience is more than that, or can be.

College, and every kind of educational experience, is grow-your-flame school, first. A kid learns something he or she is excited about, and the kid’s flame grows. I didn’t sit through hours of shoot-me-now music theory classes so that I could do music theory all day at a desk. I’m not sure jobs like that even exist. I did it because learning how the pieces fit together, how harmony and rhythm and chord structures work, enlarged my brain and elevated my perspective. Aah, I remember thinking, ten thousand years ago in music school. So that’s how that works. So that’s why Alban Berg used that chord in his opera “Wozzeck.” So that’s how it fits together.

If our highest aspiration were to teach kids how to do jobs, we wouldn’t need most college programs. You can learn almost anything on the job. That’s what apprenticeships used to do, for hundreds of years. Millers and blacksmiths and bricklayers didn’t stand around and complain that the kids in their shops weren’t qualified, because the point of the apprenticeship was to teach the kid how to do the work. Apprenticeships work wonderfully. How did we manage for hundreds of years without college? We taught kids how to problem-solve on the ground.

I’m a corporate HR leader. That’s my background. I have 100% confidence that if you give me a bright kid who’s interested in people, I can make the kid a capable HR person. It’s not just me – any HR mentor can do it. The academic part of HR is strictly beside the point, because learning the how-tos of compensation and benefits and training is better done in context than in the abstract, not just for HR people but for anyone.

I ran HR for a huge company, and I never took a class in HR. How did I do it? You work on little problems first, then bigger and bigger ones, and as you see larger problems and solve them, you see how the pieces fit together.

That’s always been the case, but we’ve taught people to believe they need degrees in order to do simple jobs that any reasonable person could learn. We’ve created a monolith of certifications and credit hours and ultra-specialized fields of study, and made people afraid to try to do anything important (or well-paying) without those trophies and trappings. That’s shameful. It’s shameful how we’ve degraded college and all forms of advanced education to x + y = z transactions, a la “Get this degree and you’re sure to get a job!”

To read the rest of Ryan's article, click here.