Saturday, November 19, 2011

[TSS] On Marketable Skills

This week, the Occupy Wall Street protesters were kicked out of Zuccotti Park.  The Occupy Movement has gotten a lot of attention in the US because while  most Americans identify with what the protest is about, they don't feel that the movement has been very successful.  And many Americans have the "Maybe if you stopped protesting and got a job, you'd be of better use to all of us."  A troubling trend that I've noticed emerging, particularly on my business school student-heavy Facebook newsfeed, is the idea that the protesters just chose a bad career path and are now suffering the consequences of it.  For example, one of my friends (who really is a great, witty, intelligent guy- don't mean to call him out on this post, but it's really pretty indicative) posted the following:
For the OWS people. You don't have jobs not because you are being oppressed. It's just that you don't have usable skills. Even though that art history major with a concentration in coffee making liberal arts degree seemed awesome in college, the real world doesn't owe you a job just for getting a useless degree.
I'm a second-year MBA student, so I am very, very likely to be working for The Man.  In fact, in the next few weeks, I will be accepting a job offer, so I know I'll be working for The Man.  I am thrilled to be doing so because I think that is where I'll make the greatest positive impact.  I chose to follow a path that included what my friend above calls "usable skills."  I went to school and learned things that, luckily for me, are currently valued in the job marketplace.  That does not make me smarter than someone else.  It doesn't make me more hardworking than someone else.  It certainly doesn't make me better than anyone else.  You know who makes up the unemployed right now?  At least a few rocket scientists who were affected by NASA's budget cuts.  Those people are a heck of a lot smarter than I am.

What bothers me is the implication that everyone should choose a study trajectory based not on their interests, but on where they'll make the most income.  It's really scary because then we have people who switch from astrophysics to finance, and physicists who believe the world is a completely rational place making all sorts of complicated models on Wall Street, and then being shocked when the market doesn't work according to that model.  Really, how many more management consultants do we need?  I can't imagine the world needs so many of them.  It's just that those are the companies that are hiring students out of college, and those students aren't completely certain what they can do with a BS in Physics.  Applying to grad school seems to be one of the only options.  The same goes for those who major in art history.

Saying that they have no marketable skills is a slap in the face.  They have all sorts of valuable skills, but they need to go through a hell of a lot more to get to a level of education in which those skills are valued, and many people can't afford to go to school for that long.  To me, it's more upsetting that our world today does not have viable employment options for the musicians and artists and historians than that these people chose to get skills that aren't easily transferable to a traditional work environment.  When did we stop valuing these studies that are so, so important to our collective cultural intelligence?  How much poorer would our world be if we didn't have people like Plato, Rumi, Einstein and Beethoven in our past?  How many modern-day Rumis and Einsteins and Beethovens are we pushing to conform like square pegs into round holes, and we'll never even realize the loss of them?

There are many big, seemingly insurmountable problems in the world.  Hunger.  Disease.  Water scarcity.  Genocide.  Climate change.  The list goes on and on, and nowhere on anyone's list is "General decrease in creativity and curiosity."  Curiosity is what drives all major theories and discoveries in the world, from Pythagoras to Einstein, and creativity is what brought us such amazingly diverse things as Angkor Wat, computers and the escalator.  And they don't come just from management consultants or computer scientists or engineers.  They come from academicians and artists and philosophers and biologists.  Our world needs people who think outside the box.  These skills are extremely important because we just don't know where they'll lead.  But in our current economic downturn, we just don't seem to value them any more.  And it shows at all levels.  More and more science majors change their minds and switch to study other things.  They too want marketable skills.  And the world at large loses another great mind that could have been a game changer.

I'm not saying that everyone should go out and become an art history major, or struggle through ten years of higher education to get a PhD. in civil engineering.  I joined business school believing fiercely that business can be a force for good in this world, and I plan to use the skills I've gained to do just that.  I wouldn't be nearly as effective in a role that required me to do calculus.  But I hope that while I focus on the business side of things, there are other people out there who are majoring in art history, so that I can visit museums and understand the beauty that came before me, that people study science so that I can see the world's resources be used more effectively than they are being used now, and that others become writers so that I can have my heart wrenched by the next Great American Novel. 


  1. Anonymous11/19/2011

    Amen. Can you imagine a world in which every single person ignored their own passions and instead only pursued what would make them the most money? Not only would everyone burn out very quickly, but there would also be no balance: everyone would go for the same jobs.

    Besides, how would that work? If everyone went for the same profitable jobs, they would all be filled, and then some people would be unemployed with no marketable skills anyway!

  2. We all have skills that are of use; its just a matter of finding something that matches that skill set.

  3. You say it well. Plus what is 'valuable skills' now may become unwanted in a few years, who knows. I mean, a ton of the people unemployed in the US are unemployed due to budget cuts all over the place, not because they don't want to work. And for many who don't have higher education or skills considered useful, it comes down to the inequality in education and services as well, so also not exactly something they can do much about...

  4. You said it well! Thanks for pointing out the errors in the argument that the protestors have worthless skills.

    And, as Melissa says, if everyone went in one direction, there would still be people out of work.


  5. You are so right! And maybe we should also point out that a loooot of people who make up the 99% and who are being made redundant work in very practical jobs. It's a bad time right now in the UK to be a builder, because the construction industry is collapsing. Public funding cuts leave a lot of low level management civil servants out on the street. Such flawed, blaming rhetoric to say that everyone who supports OWS and is out of a job right now have no traditional marketable skills.

  6. liberal arts majors have plenty of skills. i have a masters degree and can't get a job in my field. the world changed; what are we supposed to do, right, become different people? the economy shrunk and lots of us got left out.

  7. lesbrary - Yes, exactly. I assume people think the invisible hand of the marketplace will fix that, but it is so long-term, it doesn't help anyone now.

    Melissa - Yes, and I think it's important to remember that just because you're doing something now, that doesn't mean you will always be doing that.

    Amy - Yes, really deep and fundamental issues at stake, right? I think there's a serious problem in that there ARE a lot of jobs available, but people don't have the right skills for them. No one wants to go into engineering :-(

    Jodie - Yes, we really need to find ways to be more creative about getting people work.

    Marie - I know, I think the way people interpret the market as being super-fast moving really neglects the fact that people need time to change their skill sets. And also ignores that maybe we are placing value on the wrong things.

  8. YES. I'm struggling to find a job right now and I have a feeling there's a long while to go before the struggle is truly over and I find a job in the field where I want to work. Even though it's only been two months since I graduated, I've already had to hear a couple of sneering remarks about going to library school in this economic climate. Yes, I knew it was a risky decision, but I can't imagine making a different choice and still being me, you know? I realise I might end up having to do something else for a while, or maybe even forever, but at least I studied something I'm truly passionate about and gave it my best shot. Thank you for this post, Aarti.

  9. Nymeth - Yes, I know you'll make a great librarian, Ana, if you are given the opportunity to be one. And I hope you are, because libraries are amazing. I wish more people understood and respected the risk people are willing to take. It's not as though anyone getting a PhD in Music Performance thinks she is going to be employed immediately in the best orchestra ever- she just really, really wants to be a musician and is willing to work for that goal.

  10. We were just talking the other day to friends about our children's goals after they get out of high-school. Both my children want to pursue the arts, one as a sculptor and painter, and one as an author. Now, I know that if they pursue these goals and get a college education based on them, they will probably end up at the bottom of the heap when it comes to getting a good job. But as a mother, I can't feel good about not letting my kids do what they love, and are very, very good at. It breaks my heart that their counselors are telling them to go into school and study business and other things that they have no interest in, because they are free spirits, and are just so wonderfully creative and talented. But art doesn't make money. I am torn as to what to do, so I was so glad to see your post and see how you felt about this. The world needs all types, and you are right about square pegs being forced into round holes. I want them to be successful, but most of all, I want them to be happy! This was such an amazing discussion post today, Aarti!

  11. Oh, Heather I can see how that is a really difficult situation to be in! One of my best friends is a professional photographer, and she said that the best advice her father gave her was that she shouldn't go to an art-specific school, but to a larger university that had many fields of study available, so that she wouldn't be pigeon-holed into one thing that maybe she didn't want to do a few years out. My friend went to Ohio University and therefore was able to get a lot of classes in different subjects and see what really appealed to her, rather than going to an art-specific school and not getting that more general base. Do you think that would be something your kids would be open to?

  12. Well said, Aarti. I chose my science degree based purely on being genuinely interested in the subject, rather than what it could lead to in terms of jobs (or I'd have become an accountant)

    And wasn't it the bankers, doubtless bankers who are 'experts' in the apparently essential and very employable skills of financial management, who caused this huge economic meltdown in the first place?

    The most transferable skills anyone can have are flexibility, and getting on with people - and you can't learn those.

  13. Yes! Aarti, you are perfectly right about this! It's sad that we start pressuring kids to have the "right" skills. Most adults don't tell kids to go to college to find out what you love, they tell them to go to college so they can get a great job! Pure bull.

    As a college student, I do feel the pressure to obtain "valuable skills". I recently changed my major from English to Psychology/Anthropology. I still want to become a librarian but I have to face facts that this occupation has been hit hard by budget cuts. Plus I love both anthropology and psychology.

    What people don't realize is that creativity is steadily decreasing! It took imagination and creativity to come up with products like the iPod. We're going to need that to get us through this down economy right now but it's not something we're fostering.

    One book that I recently read said that we can't predict what skills are going to be needed in 20 years but honesty, optimism,tenacity, and compassion have never gone out of style.

  14. I believe learning is a life long process and adaption is necessary. I was working for an insurance company i really thought i would spend my entire working career with. Then i got a computer related injury and went out on disability.

    While recovering i remmembered my teenage interest in the medical field and became a medical assistant and now have been a Massage Therapist for 11 years. I still dontvhave a college degree but im working towards it . My job skills dont require a degree for advancement but my passion for learning will lead me there one day :)

    Great post

  15. Tracy - True, I bet former bankers make up a portion of the unemployed, too. But they are probably not on OWS!

    I think what makes me most sad about that is how many really BRILLIANT people switch into investment banking out of a science-related or other longer-term career, and just how much we've lost because of the need for short-term returns.

    Vasilly - Yes, I think students these days are so obsessed with passing exams and meeting minimum requirements that teachers don't have time any more to inspire creativity. It's really a bummer :-( This video is EXCELLENT in describing it:

    Fiction State of Mind - That's great! I do love serendipitous accidents that lead you down a path that works much better for you :-)

  16. Another great video about the left side of the brain vs. the right side, and how our culture is dominated by the left side and how that has impacted us:

  17. I appreciate your post so much, Aarti. I have two degrees in English, and it was a BIG CONSCIOUS DECISION to go that way. I've spent 10 years in higher education, and with my job evaporating sometime next year, I'm freakin' terrified that I (maybe) won't be able to find anything else in the near future. I know I have a crapload (technical term) of usable, transferable skills but we've also set up such a rigid system of employment, changing career trajectories at this stage in the game is almost impossible.

    We will see.

  18. Oh, Andi, I know what you mean. People act as though it's so easy to change jobs these days, which maybe is true, but only if you stay in the same field! I had to go back to grad school and pay a RIDICULOUS amount of money in the hopes of getting onto the career trajectory I now want. It's just far too specialized these days, I think, and makes it really hard for people to switch quickly enough to go where the need is.

    I will cross my fingers for you and Ana and Marie. It's a tough market out there, especially for those of you in education, but we need great and passionate people like you SO MUCH.

  19. Great post. I was a Medieval History undergrad major. I wound up being a really good writer, and went into the advertising industry. Years later I realized I wanted to teach, and got a Master's and PhD in communications. (I'm now a college professor.) I had no idea where that history degree was going to take me, but I don't think I would have gotten here if I'd hated my major!

  20. BEAUTIFUL post. Needs to be saids

  21. I think the frustration I have with the "you're out of work and it's YOUR FAULT" argument (not limited to business majors, but also made by upper middle class folk of my acquaintance who have the seniority to avoid being laid off) is that it is so unbelievably simplistic. And therein lies the problem with people not getting liberal arts degrees.

    A good liberal arts degree (which I don't have, I'm a science major with a library science masters, which has its advantages and disadvantages too) teaches people to THINK. To be critical. To be creative. One would suggest that perhaps we need more liberal arts majors out in the work force these days, not less. The world needs less prescriptive, short-term thinking and more big ideas by people with the passion to implement them.

    These same people who are telling people to get marketable skills (which apparently people without business degrees can't have?) are also the ones decrying the lack of innovation in today's business world. It would behoove them to figure out who actually does the innovating, and support that.

  22. I know plenty of people who are out of work right now, and they are by no means all liberal arts majors. A lot of people who were in construction, real estate and development fill one big category, and the other is computer science/IT work.

    My company hired a program assistant a year ago (basically a secretary) and we had 150 people apply for it. It pays $29,000 a year. Two of the people who applied were out of work attorneys and many were regional sales managers. Probably 90% of the applicants were so over qualified that we would never have considered them. We ended up hiring someone with a masters degree in English and 20 years of work experience (still vastly over qualified). For $29,000 a year in a major Midwestern city!

    Everyone has been affected by the unemployment crisis. It has very little to do with your major in college.

  23. Thank you for articulating so well what I would hope most of us out here are feeling! I think it's easy for those who aren't in tough situations to make generalizations about the career paths of others. The economy hasn't been kind to many people lately, but I completely agree that it is sad that the first positions/budgets to get cut are those that are deemed inessential (like music and art in schools).

  24. All that aside, going to college isn't and shouldn't be the same thing as going to trade/vocational school. College should expand and deepen your knowledge, your understanding, your curiousity. It can't and shouldn't prep you for some job.

    OTOH, it'd be nice if students learned how to read, write, calculate and spell in K-12.

  25. I've felt annoyed at the NYTimes for opening that long profile of OWS with a story about an OWS protester who went to school for puppetry and then couldn't find a job. Like, okay, that kid exists, but so do plenty of law students who can't find a job. I thought that piece shaped the public discourse about OWS pretty significantly in favor of the kind of perspective your friend has.

  26. Great post, Aarti! I hate the sort of "blame the victim" rhetoric that's going on with discussions of the unemployed. People feel better about the state of things, if they let themselves assume that if a person doesn't have a job, that person did something wrong.

    And people also seem to take some relish in saying such-and-such sector of jobs are not necessary and should be cut. So take away their jobs and then tell them they deserve for that to happen to them, basically.

    This is not to say that bad decisions can't be a cause of unemployment or that some jobs do need to be cut, but it can't be turned into a blanket assumption or diagnosis.

    I have a Bachelor's in English and wouldn't go back and change that, even if it made me feel a dime a dozen when I went to library school, as most people there also had a Humanities degree. But for me it was the right degree, given my passions and strengths.

    That said, I worked for several years as an academic adviser for graduate students and I did think that some students were being unrealistic - wanting a super-specialized job in a highly prestigious institute right off the bat for example. A little flexibility is needed sometimes.

  27. Yes! Oh my gosh yes!!

    I have an MA in Business Studies but I was MISERABLE working in business. I take my hat off to those who love it. I wish I did, but I don't. I'm fortunate in that I AM able to use those skills I learned in my business degree for my new career. I have several incredibly intelligent and resourceful and well educated friends who chose careers that when they chose in college had a good chance of getting jobs. Unfortunately 4 or 8 or 12 years later the market was radically different. Nymeth mentioned having issues getting a job as a librarian. Three years ago there was a shortage of librarians here in Sweden. I just checked the statistics for librarians here today, they are now considered to be "in balance". Things change so quickly and to say that someone who started studying for that three years ago has "worthless skills" is to devalue that person, and for business studies students not to get that markets change makes me want to tell them to come sit in class with my students :).

  28. Yes to everything you said in this post! I'm not an American. However, I do live in a third world country, and, when I chose to study Literature in college, people thought I was crazy. "You're going to starve," most of them said to me. I graduated a couple of months ago, and guess what? I'm not starving. I'm actually employed, and I'm just saving until I get enough money for a masters.

    Most high school students in our country are being forced by their parents to study courses that will bring in a lot of money, but what about the things you're passionate about? Some people might love it, but I can't imagine being an engineer. It's just not who I am.

  29. I could not agree more Aarti. I don't want to live in a world where everyone goes for the money and majors in business. That would be a sad, sad world.

  30. What a great post. So thoughtful and well-reasoned, and it brings up a vital point about education and careers. I'm not American but still, there is that pressure everywhere I think -- the expectation that a) an education is only useful if it brings in cash and b)we're able to foresee the future well enough to guess what jobs will need employees once you're all done with the school bit. Both false expectations, in my opinion.

  31. Thanks to the recession, and the slow recovery following it, white people are finally seeing firsthand what it has been like for blacks all along.


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