“Education” Is Just an Excuse for Not Hiring

Dean BakerEver since I responded to Martin Wolf, Impulse Control and Economic Inequality, I’ve been obsessing about the idea that the cure for income inequality is education. It isn’t that I ever bought this idea. It has always been obvious that it was just a way to minimize concerns about inequality. It is the non-racist’s version of “cultural dysfunction.” But what bugs is that it doesn’t even make sense. How exactly does a college education give one marketable skills except in the sense that employers think it does?

Most recently, I was talking to my partner about our little high tech company. I told him I look forward to the day when we have some money and I can hire “real” programmers to do work that I find interesting, but certainly not the best use of my skills. In other words, as I have had in the past, I want a group of programmers I use to do the detailed work so I can focus on managing the project and moving it in the right direction. Since I have been in the position of hiring such help, I know how I would do it.

When I say “real” programmers, what I mean are people who love programming for its own sake. My approach to programming is very similar to that of most scientists. I just make things work. The code is not well designed and it is rarely even close to being as efficient as it ought to be. So I have a great admiration for people who know how to code right. Of course, I also tend to find them kind of boring — wrapped up in details. But that’s why they are of so much use to me!

I have absolutely no interest in whether such people have a college education. They might, of course. But it doesn’t mean anything to me as an employer. In fact, in my experience, people with computer science degrees are not the best programmers. That’s because computer science isn’t really about programming. It’s about data structures and algorithms and other more theoretical stuff. You know: interesting stuff, but not practical skills. If I had ten programmers, it would probably be good to have one with a computer science degree — but only if he was also an exceptional programmer.

Dean Baker wrote an interesting article that touches on this, David Leonhardt Wonders Why Its Cold In the Winter and Wages Aren’t Rising. Leonhardt wrote another one of those “Why aren’t wages rising?!” articles and, as usual, he rushes to the typical brainless answer: education! Baker fired back that the unemployment rate for college educated workers is 50% higher now than it was before the 2008 financial crisis. But it would seem that people like Leonhardt always look at the unemployment rate of people with college educations and see that they are lower than for people without college education. And this causes them to think that if everyone had college degrees, overall unemployment would be lower. It makes no sense.

Baker noted something that I talk about a lot, but is usually missing from the debate, “Believers in supply and demand would know that more college grads should put even further downward pressure on the wages of college grads.” Yes, the more people have college degrees, the less they mean; they lose the “right kind of people” sheen. But what I think is really going on is that the business community wants to use “education” as an excuse for why it is they sit on piles of case and do stock buybacks rather than hiring people.

So the education excuse for why companies aren’t hiring is just an apologia. The idea of a college education was never about giving people specific skills. In as much as it was ever about employment, it was about giving workers a base of knowledge on top of which a company could provide necessary skills. The idea that someone is going to go to college and get the exact right “skills” that a company wants is laughable. That doesn’t even happen with vocational colleges. So if companies don’t want to hire people, that’s their right. But we don’t have to accept the excuse that it is all about the fact that more people aren’t graduating college.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

5 thoughts on ““Education” Is Just an Excuse for Not Hiring

  1. Back before our college grad glut, there were other reasons that a college education made for desirable employees, besides just a knowledge base. A big one, as you mentioned, is certifying that they were the “right people.” And what did that mean? Partly, that they were submissive to authority. They could meet arbitrary deadlines and parrot the viewpoints of their superiors. That’s not all college is, not even most of it, but to graduate you do need to swallow a fair amount of humiliation (in liberal arts fields, at least; I’ve been told it’s less annoying in the hard sciences.)

    “Right people” also means people terrified of being working class. In the early 90’s I attended the U of Oregon, known as a “liberal” college, and the lowest form of social misstep committable was “dating a townie.” If you had to get your sex off-campus, in the local logging communities, you were slumming in the worst way. When I dropped out and got a crummy job my social cachet among my college friends dropped to sub-zero; those scars have taken a long time to heal!

    If you see the Woody Allen picture “Blue Jasmine” you get a look at this mindset. The great Cate Blanchett plays a trophy wife down on her luck and forced to dwell amidst the unwashed. She’s brilliant in it; the movie is cruel towards working-class culture. (Allen is a accomplished director with a mind that hasn’t advanced much in forty years.)

    If you’re terrified of being working class, you will accept almost any position that keeps you among the elite. Every college activist I knew dropped their economically liberal attitudes like a poison turd once the choice became stick by your principles or stick with the exciting vibrant social group. It was literally in several cases protesting against Nike sweatshops one year and working for Nike’s corporate campus in Beaverton three years later. They stayed “social liberals.” This is your TED talks crowd.

    In a way the college glut in America, while horrible for grads with debt, may prove to be good for liberalism. Now that more college grads are finding themselves stuck among the unwashed they are realizing that the unwashed are often interesting people, too. And often dullards. Just like anyone.

    Like I’ve bored you with before, I believe education deserves a real overhaul; it should have nothing to do with spending or making money and everything to do with training people to explore fields and perform jobs they are interested in. It’s such a mess from junior high on up though that we would need a serious national dialogue about how to start reforming it; it’s the Mother Of All Not Easily Solved Issues.

    • Yeah, I think education should be a social good in and of itself. There is a quote I will paraphrase, “The reason to give children a great education is so they will have great childhoods.” But I think what we are finding in the US is that the lack of a good educational system deprives us of social cohesion. And this is why we have turned ever more into a class-based society.

      I often had to go to Oregon and Oregon State for research purposes. I never liked Oregon — it is too much like an Ivy League school.

      A publisher of mine (Stanford sociology PhD) had a theory that getting a PhD was all about proving that you were a good little boy. She was thus fascinated with Timothy Leary (who she also published) and me, because we clearly didn’t get properly “socialized.” But there is much to this. If you look at people who have gotten Nobel Prizes, you will often wonder what the big deal is. The ideas are pretty simple. I think it is because most people in academia are so committed to what everyone else believes that it takes a great intellectual effort to think outside that very rigid box. The idea of education is for us to have a common knowledge base, not to become enforcers of it.

      • I visited my youngest brother at Oregon State some years ago; it’s quite different from Oregon. Still got your hippy-dippy cafes and all, but the college actually blends into the town, it’s not an enclave. Funny it’s thought of as the lamer of the two; I understand they do quite a lot of good, serious work there. But that whole way colleges are ranked by prestige is nonsense anyway. I had better instructors in military school than at Oregon or USC, and the best instructors I’ve ever met taught at a community college here in Saint Paul. Overworked and underpaid, though.

        Interesting thought about education and social cohesion. That’s surely part of the problem. You could easily update Shaw’s Pygmalion today; certain American patterns of speech label one as “poor” just as assuredly as Eliza Doolittle’s Cockney accent did. (There’s a TV show now using Pygmalion to reference online behaviors and not class; I have no interest in seeing it.) And a better-educated society would never swallow the garbage which passes for political dialogue here. (We’d still have a right wing, since that kind of thinking has an emotional appeal to some people, but it would be Europe dumb, not America dumb.)

        Of course that was always one of the things rich jerks hated about unions; they were a source of education. It’s probably the main reason they’re going after public-employee unions today, even though those unions don’t directly reduce profits the way commercial-enterprise unions do. If you see the documentary “Citizen Koch” (it’s good, but kinda depressing) you see super-Christian Wisconsin union members getting an education about how turdnugget Scott Walker is bad for them no matter how solid his born-again bonafides may be. Well, we don’t want those people waking up, do we?

        • Actually, I believe the right hates unions so much because it creates social cohesion among workers. Remember: slavery in the colonies became race-based to fight exactly this “problem.” If the capitalists can keep the workers fighting among themselves, then the capitalists will never be challenged.

          But education would do a lot of the same stuff.

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