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Is A College Degree Valuable Without Job Skills?

By Kira Botkin

Graduating girl with capWhen you’re entering college at 17 or 18, you’re often encouraged to broaden your horizons and pursue what interests you. But is that a good plan for long-term career success? Unfortunately, this type of advice can sometimes lead to students gaining skills and knowledge that may very likely be virtually useless upon graduation. I am not saying people should sacrifice their interests for the sake of a good-paying career, but they at least need to be made fully aware of how their decisions in college will affect their career opportunities down the road. In my own life, I can think of many people who graduated with fancy degrees and lots of knowledge, but had no actual work experience or valuable job skills, which put them behind the proverbial eight ball when it came time to look for a job.

I do feel bad for students like the one described in this New York Time’s article, who have been told a rather fuzzy story about higher education being the entry point to a good, solid, middle-class life, with a salaried, 9 to 5 job. It’s tough for these students because most of them have never been given any direction by the school or their family as to what skills are essential to getting that nice, salaried job. In the case of the woman in this article, she didn’t realize her options would be severely limited by pursuing an interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies. Despite her note in a follow-up to that article where she states that her program was “academically rigorous and helped prepare me for innumerable future careers,” it’s very questionable how much value she really got out of the program. As a friend pointed out, since she’s currently a photographer’s assistant and barely paying the bills, apparently it hasn’t actually brought her those innumerable future careers. She may have gained great research skills, learned to think analytically, and grasped complicated topics withing her discipline, but unfortunately those sorts of skills are not enough to qualify for the majority of attractive, entry-level jobs.

Sometimes these sorts of stories about liberal arts schools annoy me, because I too have a fancy liberal arts degree with lots of focus on writing, speaking, and thinking abstractly, and many times it seems that the value of those skill is going down. I also came out of school with a big lump of debt (about $25k) and sometimes wonder if I had been properly prepared by my family, friends, and college advisers to gain the optimal experience at my high-powered private university.

Today, employers are looking for skills, not just the “B.A.” after your name on your resume. You can spend all the time in the world dabbling in different concentrations and racking up debt in college, but you need to make sure you are learning valuable skills, much of which can be gained through actual work experience. Luckily for me, I worked multiple jobs in college our of necessity to pay off some of my expenses. It turned out that it was the experience from these jobs that elevated me above my peers to get my first entry-level job out of college. My employers have always heavily valued skill and experience over degrees. Previous work experience illustrates that you have a proven ability to show up and do work hard at something for eight hours or more a day.

Did the skills I learned in the college classroom go down the drain without any use? Not at all. Now that I have gained valuable, real-world, work experience, I am at a point in my career where the analytical and abstract skills I learned in college can be put to great use to further my career and differentiate myself from my colleagues as I continue to try to climb the ladder. But if these skills were all I had to show for my college experience at my first interview, they’d have passed me over in favor of somebody who actually had some job skills!

We also tend to forget about the many ways that you can earn a good living without a four year degree – people complain about the plumber costing $100 an hour, but few actually think about the fact that these high rates mean the plumber makes more than they do per hour. Skilled trades are not the flashiest or easiest way to earn a living, but they’ll always be in demand. Occupational and physical therapy assistants also make a good living (usually with good hours!) and don’t require four years to get there.

What do you think? Does a bachelor’s degree really qualify you to do a wide variety of things, even without specific job skills? What’s your take on going to school for a degree that doesn’t train you to do a job?

(photo credit: Ralph and Jenny)

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Kira Botkin
Kira is a longtime blogger and serial entrepreneur who enjoys gardening, garage sales, and finding stray animals. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, where football is a distinct season, and by day runs a research study for people with multiple sclerosis. She hopes that the MoneyCrashers team can help you achieve your goals and live a great life.

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  • Ladam8518

    I have always held the opinion that a purely liberal arts degree was of little or no value. The skill set required for a liberal arts degree (writing, speech, abstract thinking) can be provided with work experience or another degree which also develops additional skill sets.

    I hold two degrees, both BS, in Chemical Engineering and Physics along with a minor in Mathematics and Statistical Analysis. Sounds impressive, but all three have very closely related skill sets. The math provides the basic skill set required for success in either of the two majors while expanding it further than the majors alone would. Both the engineering and science major require the same skill sets as a liberal arts degree with the addition of analytical thinking and teaching real world applicable skills.

    The two degrees didn’t come free, I attended a private school ranked high in chemical engineering by my choice. I was accepted into a public school that at the time was ranked third in the country but didn’t offer the engineering curriculum I wanted – a decision killer in my mind. I am now dealing with enough student loans to have two high-end luxury cars sitting in my driveway. Though this is more to nearly completing an unfunded Masters degree.

    With the degrees I have worked in two different engineering fields, the first was a technical sales which used engineering knowledge to drive sales to customers by selling solutions rather than products. The second is a design and performance engineering job where I squeeze out every extra bit of efficiency out of power plants. Part of the reason I have the second job was the school I attended, the hiring manager was an alumnus and I also had a course in fluidized reactors which was a technology niche of the company. I was prepared to explain the company technology to the hiring manager.

    I am now finishing the aforementioned masters on my employers dime. I have managed my career and am picking up additional skills as often as I can through job experiences and training. The technical sales position helped with many skills I was missing upon graduation and for that was worth the fact that the job expenses were greater than my pay. I may have been able to avoid that with a minor in one of the liberal arts, though at the time I didn’t see any value there.

    My point is that ones choice of studies should be designed to cover things that you enjoy (I always liked chemistry and physics) and skills that are useful. If you want to focus on a liberal arts curriculum, make sure that you are developing skills that can’t easily be developed elsewhere. My public speaking skills were begun in school but most of my skills were learned from working technical sales for half a year. School is for experiences and picking up life skills, don’t hinder yourself by doubling up on skills.

  • http://vertex42blog.com/money/saving/college-savings.html Nate Hall

    This is a very important topic to cover and hopefully one that will get current and future students thinking about their situation. People have different interests and abilities. Something that is really pushed now is to do what interests you when getting your education. If you choose to get a liberal arts degree, you should be willing to accept the types of jobs associated with them.

    Another thing to consider when getting whatever type of degree you consider is the return on investment. Will the degree give you the necessary skills or advantage for the real world? Will the money you make in your future job help you in your financial goals and to pay for college debt?

    The things mentioned in this article are important to consider when thinking about your education.

  • http://stretchyourdollarwaukesha.wordpress.com/ Skirnir Hamilton

    I wonder why employers don’t seem to understand that a good college degree means that the employee is teachable. They can learn the job much better than someone without a degree. IE if your degree isn’t directly related to the job in question, which is rare, the degree seems to mean absolutely nothing. Used to be there was a difference in pay scale for those who only completed high school compared to those who completed a BA, but that is changing. That is rather sad, to be honest. (And yes, I have wondered many times if my BA was a waste. I went into something I liked, as everyone said to do, maybe I should have gone into education like I considered. But the class I sat in on was the most boring thing in the world and the education majors I knew were taking the dumbest classes. As were most of the business majors. But they are the ones who probably at least found a decent job in their field.)

  • les2887

    If you have the dedication and drive to get a degree versus going right into the working world or developing technical skills, it is worth it. But college isn’t just about attending the classes and doing the work. Students need to gain experience by working or interning part-time. After a few semesters with very poor grades, I was forced to leave my university. Fortunately I had been working for a student housing corporation and my experience allowed me to gain a promotion which brought me from a part-time, $7.50 job to a full-time, salary position with a benefits package that included free housing. I am currently 23 and without even an AA, but my fellow classmates who had focused solely on degrees and did not work are living with their parents, working part-time jobs. The degree with help you from hitting those glass ceilings as you work your way up in the world, but students have to gain some sort of job experience before graduating.

  • http://theeducatedloser.blogspot.com/ Educated Loser

    I appreciate how the article touches upon one of the biggest problems with higher education – that of how students are told they should go to college, but aren’t given much direction or advice beyond that. Like many people, I got the “it doesn’t matter where you go to school or what you major in as long as you have a degree” line. Unfortunately, I fell for it, afterall, everyone made it sound like it was a no-brainer – you go to college, show an employer how dedicated you are by sticking with it for four years and obtaining that degree, after you graduate you get multiple job offers from all the employers just clamoring to hire you, and ultimately you get a fabulous job with a great salary. If people didn’t realize this was all a lie, I don’t know if the liberal arts departments at the colleges could exist. Who would be a liberal arts major if they’re told “yeah, you won’t be able to get a job with this”? Instead, we’re told the exact opposite.

  • MIMI

    Hi,

    My experience is that my education is 100% useless. I think it’s criminal that advisors and others still encourage people to pursue their interests if their interests will never get them a job.

    Also, there are no jobs in education either. I finished my degree three years ago and am still not working as a teacher.

    MIMI

  • http://vertex42.com Nate Hall

    I was just visiting with a colleague today about this topic including a couple of things related to what MIMI said. This colleague and I got the same degree in the social sciences and we were talking about how it is important to have a plan when getting a degree…if you get the degree of your dreams and it doesn’t amount to much, then it’s makes life a bit tougher.

    It’s a good idea to make a plan. If you are interested in a specific degree that won’t train in the business world, will it require graduate work to do anything with it? Will it work financially? Do you have one specific interest or would your skills and talents be applicable in another field?

    I’ve not ever really used my degree, though I think it’s helped me obtain jobs. No matter the degree, it’s important to have a plan.

  • http://businessanalystcertification365.com/ Business Analyst Certification

    In this competitive age, only educational qualifications are not enough for competing in job market and job prospect. Some professional trainings and certifications are most essential now.

  • http://www.forestcotton.blogspot.com/ Jim

    I would like so very much to comment about career risk along with a few other matters related to employment and education.

    The first thing is this I am a fairly intelligent person but I have never been able to develop a concept of what the job market is really all about.

    Yes I know that theirs jobs that are skilled as opposed to unskilled. But here’s the thing how does one define what skill is’ for example a janitor is clearly a unskilled job or very low skill job and a dentist with twenty years under his belt is clearly a high skilled job’ but what about everything else in between the two. Someone that drives a van and makes local delveries is clearly not as skilled as someone that drives a eighteen wheeler over the road. But is the job driving a eighteen wheeler really a skilled job or not. What about the head manager of a seven eleven would their job be considered skilled. What about a helicopter pilot. What about a car salesmen compared to a certified auto mechanic. Is the car salesman considered a skilled job or not. I could go on and on but I think you get the point its much harder to define what skilled is or isn’t. In other words where does one draw the line when it comes to skilled or unskilled.

    Another area I would like to comment about is formal education. Yes its true that people with more education make more money than those with less education. But break it down a little bit and its not so clear. If I randomly select 100 college grades and remove the twenty highest paid grades from the list’ I would be willing to make a educated guess that those twenty highest paid grades make as much money as the other eighty combined. Remove the twenty highest paid college students and you might get a totally different picture of things.

    What about this’ If we take two college students that are identical in almost everyway they majored and minored in the same area got the same grades same act and sat scores attended the same college or university with one exception. One of them is one or two credits short of their bachelor’s degree. The other completed their education and received their degree. Now its safe to say that the student without a degree is just about equal to the student with the degree. We could say that they both would be just as likely to perform as well in the same job yet the student with the degree would be considered better educated and more likely to be hired and receive more money than the student without the degree’ but really theirs essentially no difference between the two the difference between the two is just a technicality. In other words the difference between the two is more like a class distinction than anything else.

    One other factor to also consider is this the type of person that attends college is more likely to be more intelligent and also more ambitious than the person that graduates from high school and just goes out and gets a job instead of attending college. So at least part of the difference in pay can be attributed to the qualities that I just stated. In other words a person thats very bright and ambitious whether they have just a high school deplomia or a college degree would be more likely to be promoted on the job simply stated bright and ambitious people are more likely to be promoted on the job than people that are not bright and ambitious and most of the people that are not bright and ambitious just attended high school. It just so happens that most people that are bright and ambitious attended college. Employees that are promoted will make more money that those that are not

    The third thing I would like to comment about is this’ ranking alone can account for a significant amount of the pay difference between two individuals. Take two people that both work at two different banks they both attended the same college or university they both have the same years of experience they both took the same courses in school got exactly the same grades the same degree the same sat and act scores. They each have worked at the bank the same number of years. They both have equal experience in the same banking speciality. They both have performed the same tasks. They both do the same amount of work they both have six people working under them. Their job performance review is exactly the same. Everything between the two is equal with one exception Bank employee number one is a senior vice president’ Bank employee number two is a junnior vice president. Banks have always been big on titles. Employee number one makes considerably more money than employee number two and its entirely due to the different ranking and really nothing else

  • Ken

    I recently semi-retired and one of the reasons I semi-retired was to help high school and college students to develop REALISTIC goals and plans, so when they graduate from college they will be able to get full time jobs in their fields. As an employer for 35 plus years I continually asked the students what they were going to do for a career, very few ever answered that they had any goals or plans. I now go into as many schools as I can and explain to them from an employers point of view what they need to get a job. One of the presentations I do is called “Tools to Build a Career”, in the presentation I explain that if your degree is the ONLY tool you have in your box, in this job market, many times it will not be enough. If I have 25 applicants all for the same job, and they all have a degree, then I tell them what they need to separate them from the rest of the applicants is CAD. CAD is what is very important to employers; Character, Attitude, and Drive.

    When I encourage high schoolers on how to get a job after college, they are told that they will be way ahead of the curve if they have been able to develop; 1)Realistic goals and plans, 2) Be a good communicator(especially verbally), and 3)Have a concrete set of work skills(this includes having a good work ethic)!! Young people that spend four years during college of focusing in on a specific career, doing internships in their field, and building a work resume BEFORE graduating, have been very successful in landing jobs when they graduate. So having a goal and a plan does not seem like just a pipe dream, my wife and I developed a set of questions in an effort to help a person find where their gifting and passions are. We titled the questions, ” Career Planning Considerations”. Just thought I would share my thoughts, I hope they can help someone out. Good Luck!!

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