Education And Career Management: Whose Responsibility Is It?

Jeremy Bradley's post on being over-educated and underpaid is very much bringing to the surface a tremendously important challenge:  What is the relationship between education and career management?  This relationship has been tightened by two factors.  First the higher cost of education pushes students and parents to identify the degree's return on investment based on the first post-graduation job the graduate secures.  The student debt burden is very much present in career decision making for both current students and graduates.  As mentioned in my post earlier this week, even graduate degrees that were traditionally thought of as a highway to high paying jobs and long term job security no longer hold such promises.

The second factor that raises questions regarding the relationship between education and career management is of course the dismal global job market that everyone has been facing in the last couple of years.  Multiple indicators suggest that the current job market might not rebound as well as in previous recessions, and even worse that the current job market crisis is deeper than many want to acknowledge.  As indicated by the New York Times on July 1st in an article titled 'Factory Jobs Return, but Employers Find Skills Shortage', recruiters in manufacturing and a number of other industries have jobs, and cannot find US-based qualified candidates to fill them.  Furthermore, accumulating evidence suggests that the advances of technology and the increasingly global distribution of workers across continents are creating an immense challenge for educational systems to educate a population that will be prepared to meet the demands of the 21st Century workforce.

Given the high cost of education and the demands of the 21st Century workforce, the question remains:  Who is responsible to bridge the gap between educating the minds of the next generation and preparing them to access the knowledge and trends they need to make informed career decisions throughout their careers?

I strongly believe that higher education is worth it.  It is the best possible training for one's brain to become able to dissociate opinions from anecdotes from data from evidence and to put a solid logical argument together to drive evidence-based decision making. The marketable skills a strong Liberal Arts education helps develop will pay dividends for the disciplined students who are willing and able to invest the necessary time and energy to engage in their university-level education.  Going through university with a 'what can I get away with' attitude is possible, and might even lead to a decent Grade Point Average, but it is also a enormous waste of time and money.  At the university level, a grade is secondary to the skills and challenge offered by pushing oneself to research how a specific issue or field came to be the way it is today, and in offering innovative evidence-based solutions or predictions on how the issue or field could be tomorrow.    Some of the responsibility is on the students to take full advantage of the academic opportunities they are offered through fully engaging in their university-level coursework.

However, I also believe that both secondary education and higher education institutions also need to do a better job at creating avenues for students to have more opportunities to reflect upon how their coursework and extracurricular activities relate to specific careers.  A recent study by the Public Agenda sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation surveyed 600 high school graduates from a variety of settings as well as gathered data from a variety of parameters based on their respective high schools.  This survey's results were shocking:  Guidance counselors in these US high schools had an average load of over 700 students (their professional association would recommend a case load of 250 students).  In addition to these astronomical loads, guidance counselors are routinely asked to perform other administrative duties and be involved in disciplinary actions as well.  This is hardly an ideal setting to sit one-on-one with students and help them reflect upon their college and career planning.

Similarly, the majority of career centers and academic advising offices at universities are dreadfully underfunded and understaffed.  However, there are a number of steps students can take to best partner with their career center (while students or as alumni). For more information, see my series on how to best partner with your career center here, here, and here.  Evidence of the lower priority of career centers in the mind of university executives can be found through salary data.  According to, the salary range for a Director of Career Services was $53,457 - $83,647.  In comparison, a 2007 study by the Chronicle of Higher Education showed that salaries for Football coaches, Basketball coaches, and Athletics Directors at top universities average over $1Million.   Don't get me wrong, I understand the argument that college sports is big business that generates sizable revenue for their respective universities.  But don't you think that providing adequate resources to career centers to help students make informed career decisions during and beyond their college years might also lead to higher donations and revenue for universities?  Overall, the majority of universities are not offering conditions that are conducive to enable students and career counselors or students and academic advisors to have substantive conversations about each student's goals and aspirations, and to discuss which courses and careers might align with their interests, skills, and values.   Without these conversations taking place, why is everyone so surprised that students and graduates are lost and have no idea what they want to do once they graduate?

The good news is that we can change this situation.  And some very dedicated university administrators are already doing so.  Look for example at the work of Andy Chan, the newly appointed Vice President for Career Development at Wake Forest University.  Through the new Office of Personal and Career Development, Chan is creating a range of programs that aim at integrating personal and career reflection and action into the curriculum throughout the university. Backed by funding and support from WFU's President, these initiatives show great promise, but are also currently the exception.

As the old saying goes, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and I hope that the current Great Global Recession will create opportunities for more conversations and integration between education and career management.  As always, I look forward to your comments and questions as we continue this important conversation!

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