Thursday, December 11, 2008


I am a college dropout.

In the fall of 1979 I was into my second year at
Pitt when I basically became restless and lost focus on school. I discovered more fulfillment in the working world, and I had more fun working in the campus radio station and doing jobs related to that.

I quit school. I started working at a hotel in my hometown, driving guests to and from the Pittsburgh airport. I eventually got into the hotel business a bit more, which sustained me until my radio hobby gave me the bright idea to volunteer as a dispatcher for a suburban EMS agency. A career was born.

That was 25 years ago. As much as circumstances of late have given me reason to lament my choice back then, I really can't say that leaving school was a decision that I regret. After all, if I had never had worked at that hotel, I would never have met my late wife, who was a lifeguard at the hotel pool. If I had not worked in the hotel business in other places, I would not have had reason or occasion to visit a certain restaurant after work. That's where I first met Leslie.

A recent
Ed Quillen column in the Denver Post lamented what I have personally termed as "hypercredentialism", or the tendency among employers to make a college degree or other educational credential a prerequisite for any employment consideration.

Let's be clear that there are many situations where degrees and professional licenses are essential. But there are also numerous job postings out there that require a degree for no plausible reason. This unfairly discounts the value of practical job experience when considering prospective qualified applicants, and if you've got no experience it tends to be slim pickings beyond the service or energy sectors.

Mr. Quillen stated that the system that exists today prevents those with intelligence and skills used and learned outside the traditional post-secondary educational system from getting a well-paying job. He cites the following:

"For example, anyone who can pass the bar exam should be able to practice as a lawyer, rather than the current system that requires a college degree followed by law school. Clarence Darrow and Abraham Lincoln were both pretty good lawyers, and neither went to college, let alone law school.

Most newspapers require college degrees for reporters, but the main value of college in this regard is that it accustoms you to sitting through long, boring sessions while taking notes; H.L. Mencken, the patron saint of American journalism, never went past high school."
He goes so far as to suggest a need for laws that prevent employers from asking about formal schooling as part of the hiring process. He also accuses the system of higher education of functioning as more of a "gate keeper", acting in many cases as an unnecessary additional expense on the pathway to decent paying jobs, with costs that have been increasing at nearly 3 times the increase in median family income over the last 25 years.

As someone who has hit the "sheepskin ceiling" several times over the years, I sympathize with what Ed is trying to say. However, I don't think that the situation for older workers like myself is as grim as he makes it out to be. Many employers that require a degree for certain positions will also consider several years of job experience as an equivalent to a degree to participate in the hiring process.

What I've also found is that because most of my work experience in communications comes from a niche industry where degrees are typically not required, many employers who have interviewed me don't know what to make of me, or where to put me.

Over the last year or so I've had the same restless feeling that I had when I was in college the first time. I haven't been able to focus on any particular strategy to correct it, but it's becoming abundantly clear that more change is coming, and it's up to me to manage it if I'm to remain relevant in my work and responsive to the needs of those I love.

It appears that I'm going to have to go back to school, if only to make additional headway in other professions that interest me. I'm taking a good hard look at online learning, but it feels better to be interacting on a person-to-person basis. Perhaps this is a bias that may need to be un-learned.

In any event, it looks as if I'll have the opportunity to do this fairly soon, once my son is done with high school. If he goes to college locally, I'm sure he'll be thrilled with the prospect of having Dad on campus from time to time.

Have a great rest of your day.

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