A reader isn’t sure a new college degree or other education is going to guarantee a career or a job, in the October 6, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.
I’m thinking of making a significant shift that would lead to better pay and an overall more satisfying career in a different kind of job. To make the change I might be able to get away with some certification programs and continuing education. However, I’m also considering getting a master’s degree because that seems to be an important credential for “getting in.” Any approach I take will cost money and time, in some cases a lot of both! How do I decide which way to go?
I’m going to tell you something that should be very obvious, but I don’t expect you’ve already considered it because our employment and education systems have brainwashed you. First, let’s get some basics out of the way.
Selling education by the pound
The education industry (make no mistake, it is an industry) goes to great lengths to market its product. The marketing strongly implies that the degree leads to the job. Students have learned to shop for degrees by the pound: a certification, a bachelor’s, a master’s. How much “great job and salary” do you want? People with specific jobs and careers in mind easily swallow the bait, hook, line and sinker.
A new college degree can be a very risky bet unless you’re aspiring to one of the “professions” which require rigorous training and credentials. I’m referring to the law, medicine, accounting, engineering and the like – although you could theoretically pass a Professional Engineer exam or pass the bar exam without going to school. (I didn’t say it would be easy!)
But you probably know new law school or engineering grads that can’t find work. Did they not buy enough education?
Who’s really paying for the education?
When you have a specific career goal in mind, the product you’re buying is not education or a degree. The real product is the job you want. This means one thing matters more than any other: What education does the employer want?
In other words, you should remember that who’s really paying for that degree (or certification) is the employer that hires and pays you for it.
Although in general a college degree means higher income, degrees may not be required for good incomes in every career — or even in the job you want. A good education is valuable for many reasons, and it can enhance a career (and your income) dramatically. But, don’t expect that getting a degree is going to guarantee you a better income or a better career.
Don’t expect an employer to buy the career promises a school sold you.
What to do
Ask them what sort of education is necessary, sufficient and useful. Thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars could hang on the answers.
I don’t mean you should read the academic “requirements” on the job description. Go talk with the hiring managers and people who already do the work you want to do. Discover the nuances. Get insight. Get insider advice.
You might even ask what kind of education pays off best when you apply for the job you want. Then pursue that education.
There’s still no guarantee of a job, but at least you’re partnering with the “other customer” that’s indirectly paying for your education.
Get past the marketing of education
Popular business magazines regularly run rankings that list the college degree programs (e.g., MBA) and schools that deliver the most bang for the buck. They list salaries and job titles obtained by graduates. Big deal. What they fail to discuss is all the other ways talented people can be successful. Many schools don’t prove that they really know what employers want.
If degrees were directly tied to jobs, schools would guarantee you job opportunities. Instead, they market the often nebulous relationship between a degree and a job.
Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t knock education. I believe a college education for its own sake can make most people smarter and better overall, if only for the broad exposure to knowledge, ideas, critical thinking and problem-solving tools it provides. We’ve all seen the surveys which show that, generally speaking, people with college degrees earn more than those without them. But, I really get bugged when schools and the media market “the relationship” between degrees, jobs and income.
Necessary and sufficient qualifications
Depending on the person and the situation, it’s not always clear that a degree (or yet another degree) is necessary. I’ve known many people, including law and medical school grads and freshly minted MBAs, who are disappointed that the degree they worked so hard to earn hasn’t gotten them a job or higher incomes. (See MBA Students Get Thrown Off Course in Bloomberg Businessweek.)
While a degree may be necessary, it may not be sufficient. That is, you need something more. That may be experience, apprenticeship or just an employer willing to take a chance on you.
Or, a degree may not be necessary if you have other qualifications that are sufficient.
Only the employer really knows.
Ask the employer
So, before you invest loads of time and money to get a degree, talk to people who do the work you want to do, and to their managers. We’re probably talking about several companies. Ask which credentials really matter to them and why. Which credentials would most likely pay off if you applied there for a job?
If you’re going to school because you want to learn for learning’s sake, that’s wonderful. But, if you’re investing in a degree to get ahead in your job, the ultimate customer of the education industry isn’t you — it’s the employer you go to work for.
I promised to tell you something very obvious. Before you invest in education or a degree, find out what education the employer wants.
What’s your experience with education, degrees and jobs? Have you been let down after investing in a degree (or an extra degree) that seemed to promise a job? What jobs really require a degree? Do you know any schools that do an exceptional job of preparing their students to actually get jobs?