I was recently interviewed by IT Management, a publication whose focus is self-evident. The title of the article is provocative: The Failure of Universities. The gist is this: Do colleges prepare students for jobs? Good question, and one that education and industry don’t do a good job of grappling with.

I’m a big believer in education for its own sake. Anyone will benefit from a college degree, just because it will make you a better thinker and a more well-rounded person. But, preparation for a job is not mutually exclusive from an academic education. In fact, I believe it’s a necessary component of a complete education. I won’t repeat myself here; it’s in the article. My aim in doing the interview was to challenge schools with some advice about how to help their grads be better workers. What do you think?

Students need advice, too. An “old regular” (though he’s not so old!) Ask The Headhunter reader recently shared with me some advice he was asked to give to a young college student. I liked it so much that I asked Vinh Pham to let me publish it — pretty much as-is. He graciously agreed.

I like the conversational tone of Vinh’s advice in Advice to a young college student, and the earnest encouragement he offers. Vinh’s message is simple and profound: Explore. I believe the kind of exploration he recommends helps students make the critical connections between education and work — and helps lead them toward the right kind of work.

See what you think.

  1. Thank you for the article. I forwarded to to my sons high school! I think that it is good advice for everyone – especially those in transition – and who aren’t sure what they want to do. You are never too old to learn.

  2. I once worked for a guy who (half joking?) said to his wife, “You make the living, baby. I’ll make the living worthwhile.”
    That’s pretty much how I feel about formal schooling – it should be whatever makes your life richer. It should not be what makes you a living (unless your living is teaching at a university).
    Everything I know professionally, I learned on the job. When we had a job applicant fresh out of college with a BS or even MS in IT, we figure he/she was about 6 months ahead of someone with no IT training at all. We hired based on our judgement of their native intelligence and their attitude, not their degress. We knew that 99% of what one needs to know to do the job has to be learned hands-on.
    Learn how to make a living. Then learn how to make it worthwhile.

  3. Ray,
    As I said in my post, I’m a big believer in education for its own sake. But when I consider the pure naivete of kids coming out of college, regarding dealing with the work world, I wanna cry. I’m not advocating vocational training in college. I’m advocating exposure to the work world through introductions to its denizens. Vinh Pham says it so well.

  4. Nick:

    Vinh’s advice was very good; however, I would suggest something in addition.

    Instead of relying solely on an email approach, students should write a letter or note. Those tend to stand out, and also teach a very personal approach that is sometimes lacking in the adult working world.

    We all spend too much time online. Part of the collective problem is communication the old-fashioned way. As in making the effort to reach someone without the impersonality and/or reliance of email or social media. If you received 100 emailed resumes for a job, and one personal handwritten note, which would you be more likely to remember?

  5. I tell students to use their college time to learn everything they can about everything that interests them. And to learn to write well. That skill transfers into every job. In my time in corporate life, I found it was much easier to hire a good writer and teach that person the industry than it was to hire an industry insider and try to teach him or her to write.

    I made my own kids take every writing course they could–and speech classes, too. They moaned and groaned and whined, yet both of them went into communications fields, so there you are.

    Also, I advise seeking meaningful internships. I now work at a university and when the kids come back and tell me what they learned at that bank in India or in the senator’s office in Washington or the social agency in Philadelphia, I know that while they’re studying the liberal arts, they’re also learning from real-world experience and making contact with people who can–and want to–help them later.

  6. Autodidacts, those who pursue self-directed learning, don’t need the formal structure of the school system to coerce them into expanding their mental horizons. The whole world is available through one’s personal selection of reading material, study tools, and personal activities (e.g. travel, home labs, etc.).

    The unique value offered by a school system lies in three things:
    1. networking with (hopefully) like-minded individuals, students, professors
    2. access to resources otherwise inaccessible to individuals, such as expensive lab equipment or large theatres or test networks
    3. the piece of paper that documents one’s ability to process the paper required by assignments, and to do so in a timely fashion according to specifications laid out by the instructor, communicating with at least a minimum of literacy.

    That diploma can add brand name value to a resume, but ultimately the job of making things happen lies with the student, their own creativity, ingenuity, and drive, not an institution.

    Many students drift in and out of school like plankton, hoping that the random tides of career center seminars and on-campus interviews will take care of feeding a future to them.

    It’s understandable that not everyone enters college with the attitude, “I’ve always dreamed of being a ballerina”, but hands-on education through internships and independent projects performed long before the senior year can help a student develop that vision for the future. One doesn’t need to walk in the door with a specific vision for the future to be able to prepare for finding that vision.