As the dynamic global economy continues to hammer away at employee stability, those just starting their post secondary studies are the most affected and concerned. Many students are looking for advice concerning what degrees to pursue to ensure that they extract the most value from their education.
The standard answer that students keep hearing from business leaders is to pursue degrees that are in the greatest demand, such as engineering instead of humanities. From a purely economic perspective, this course of action is the most logical to pursue. However, from a life knowledge perspective, it is a questionable. Indeed, it begs the question: when did a degree turn into a career stepping stone?
Over the years, there has been a considerable change in the perceived value of a degree as well as its purpose. During the Baby Boomer generation, the "Ivory Tower" persona associated with a post secondary degree remained intact. The majority of the population was capable of finding a middle class job with only a high school diploma, therefore making the need for a university degree limited. However, the changing nature of the economy has dramatically shifted the value of education.
Today's high school diploma is no longer sufficient as an entry point into today's economy. The equivalent of today's high school diploma is the undergraduate degree. The transformation of the undergraduate degree as the minimum requirement to enter today's workforce introduces a number of questions, including:
(a) Is a post secondary education meant to be an entry ticket into a career or is it meant to be an exploration of self?
(b) Is a post secondary education meant to merely provide concrete employable skills or abstract reasoning ability?
Post secondary students are increasingly caught in an eternal struggle concerning the fundamental purpose of education. On one side, business leaders are driving students increasingly towards "practical" degrees such as engineering. On the other side there are the defenders of a comprehensive educational approach that provides students critical analytical abilities.
It is easy to see how the business approach to education is seductive, particularly to students who need secure jobs to pay the student debt they have incurred once they graduate. Business leaders constantly complain about the need for more engineering graduates and that they have thousands of positions waiting to be filled. While perfectly sensible, the question must be asked if this makes sense from either an individual or even a societal perspective.
The first question that must be asked is if society's best interests are truly served by funneling students into careers that (a) are based on short term economic needs and (b) are focused on technical skills. The one constant that the global economy has demonstrated is that it is unpredictable. What is considered a "hot" career for one generation can disappear with the next. Thus, this unpredictability then makes the demand by corporations for additional technically skilled individuals highly suspect.
Another question that arises is whether corporations are truly looking out for the long term best interests of employees when they plead for more students to enter "hot" careers, or are they looking for society to help reduce costs? With the available labor pool expanding due to the interconnected economy, one must wonder if corporations are merely attempting to ensure that today's highly paid "hot" careers are tomorrow's low income work ghettos.
As a result of the rapid pace of technological change, individual technical skills need to be constantly upgraded. Whether it is adapting to new cloud based architecture, technical skills have a shorter life span than ever before. The question then becomes: Are employees being forced into continuous lifelong learning and heavier student debt loads for perpetuity?
While the self interest of corporations and the rapid obsolescence of technical skills are some reasons to be wary of leveraging post secondary institutions as an initial career stepping stone, the other reasons strike to the heart of what it truly means to work. It brings up the fundamental question of whether we as individuals are living to work or working to live?
It is accurate that corporations could have their employee shortages solved overnight if more students entered high demand fields, but the question is whether or not they should. As many productivity surveys show, the best employees are those who are passionate about their careers. Funneling individuals into fields solely on quantitative metrics such as value does not produce passionate high performers but lifeless drones.
High performing companies have proven that corporate culture matters and corporate culture is easily killed when you introduce sub-par performers. Thus funneling individuals into fields solely based on economic value rather than personal preference is not only individually damaging but economically and socially damaging as well. Not only could we potentially be losing the next great Picasso, but overall economic and social productivity could be negatively impacted as well.
The biggest assumption with corralling students into high demand fields is that it makes the assumption that students are fully aware of what they want. The sad reality is that most young students have absolutely no clue what they want in life or in career. Students are exploring who they truly are, particularly since the majority of them are away from parental control for the first time in their lives. This self exploration not only truly defines what the post secondary experience should be, but the insanity of turning the post secondary institution experience into a career stepping stone.
There is no doubt that the need for technically skilled workers has been never greater than before. It is the new reality of our technologically enhanced economy. However, society must never forget that education is not mean to merely provide meaningful employment but also provides the analytical foundation to enable individuals to adapt and grow. Humans aren't merely cogs in the machine for vast corporate behemoths but are ever changing individuals with free will.