Harvard Business Review

Higher Education Is Overrated. Skills Aren't


Posted on Harvard Business Review: July 29, 2010 10:38 AM

With innovation, entrepreneurship and significantly smarter fiscal policies, America should eventually escape its "hireless recovery." But what won't hasten new hiring—and might even dampen job prospects—is the mythical belief that higher education invariably leads to higher employment and better jobs. It doesn't. Foolish New York Times stories notwithstanding, education is a misleading-to-malignant proxy for economic productivity or performance. Knowledge may be power, but "knowledge from college" is neither predictor nor guarantor of success. Growing numbers of informed observers increasingly describe a higher education "bubble" that makes a college and/or university education a subprime investment for too many attendees.

Are they right? I don't know. But painfully clear to many employers are serious gaps between elite educational credentials and actual individual competence. College transcripts spackled with As and Bs—particularly from liberal arts and humanities programs—reveal less about a candidate's capabilities than most serious employers need to know. Even top-tier MBA degrees often say more about the desire to have an important credential than about any greater capacity to be a good leader or manager. The curricular formalities of higher education—as opposed to its informal networks of friends and connections—may be less valuable now than they were a decade ago. In other words, alumni networks may be more economically valuable than whatever one studied in class. "Where you went" may prove professionally more helpful than "what you know." That certainly undermines "value of education" arguments. While higher education itself isn't marginal or unimportant, its actual market impact on employment prospects may be wildly misunderstood. In "Econ 101" terms for job-hunters: time spent cultivating your Facebook/Linked-In network(s) may be a better investment than taking that Finance elective.

Eduzealots have done a truly awful thing to serious human capital conversations and analyses around employment. By vociferously championing higher education as key to economic success, they've distorted important public policy debates about how and why people get hired and paid well. They've undermined useful arguments about "street smarts" versus "book smarts." Treating education as the best proxy for human capital is like using patents as your proxy for measuring innovation— its underlying logic shouldn't obscure the fact that you'll underweigh market leaders like WalMart, Google, Tata and Toyota. Dare I point out that Microsoft's Bill Gates, Dell's Michael Dell, Apple's Steve Jobs, Oracle's Larry Ellison and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg are all college drop-outs? The point isn't to declare a college degree antithetical to launching a high-tech juggernaut but to observe that, perhaps, higher education isn't essential to effective entrepreneurship.

We have a huge branding issue. Pundits and policy-makers jabber about the need to educate people to compete in knowledge-intensive industries. But knowledge doesn't represent even half the intensity of this industrial challenge. What really matters are skills. The grievously undervalued human capital issue here isn't quality education in school but quality of skills in markets. Establishing correlations, let alone causality, between them is hard. (Michael Polanyi's classic "Personal Knowledge" brilliantly articulates this.) A computer science PhD doesn't make one a good programmer. There is a world of difference between getting an "A" in robotics class and winning a "bot" competition. MIT's motto isn't Mens et Manus (Latin for Mind and Hand) by accident. Great knowledge is not the same as great skill. Worse yet, decent knowledge doesn't guarantee even decent skills. Unfortunately, educrats and eduzealots behave as if college English degrees mean their recipients can write and that philosophy degrees mean their holders can rigorously think. That's not true. Feel free to comment below if you disagree…

As Atkinson's anecdotes affirm, there's no shortage of "well- educated" college graduates who can't write intelligible synopses or manage simple spreadsheets. I know doctoral candidates in statistics and operations research who find adapting their superb technical expertise to messy, real-world problem solving extraordinarily difficult. Their great knowledge doesn't confer great skill. Nevertheless, you would find their research and their resumes impressive. You should. But focusing on their formal educational accomplishments misrepresents their skill set outside the academy. Academic and classroom markets are profoundly different than business and workplace markets. Why should anyone be surprised that serious knowledge/skill gaps dominate those differences?

Higher education institutions do decently with knowledge transmission. Unfortunately, they do dismally transmitting skills. Pun intended, that's—apparently—not their job. That's also why "human capital" debates and investment policies going forward should weight skills over knowledge. When I look at who is getting hired, purported knowledge almost always matters less than demonstrable skills. The distinctions aren't subtle; they're immense. How do they manifest themselves? These hires don't have resumes highlighting educational pedigrees and accomplishments; their resumes emphasize their skill sets. Instead of listing aspirations and achievements, these resumes present portfolios around performance. They link to blogs, published articles, PowerPoint presentations, podcasts and webinars the candidates produced. The traditional two-page resume has been turned into a "personal productivity portal" that empowers prospective employers to quite literally interact with their candidate's work.

Unsurprisingly, this simultaneously complements and reinforces the employer-side due diligence that's emerged during this recession: firms have both the luxury and necessity to find the best possible candidates for open positions. Yes, they're looking for appropriate levels of educational accomplishment but, really, what they most want are people who have the skills they need. More importantly, they want to actually see those skills—be they written, computed, designed and/or presented. Professional services firms I know now don't hesitate to ask a serious candidate to demonstrate their sincerity and skills by asking them to show how they might "adapt" a presentation for one of the company's own clients. Verbal fluency and presence impresses headhunters and interviewers. But the ability to virtually demonstrate one's professional skills increasingly matters more.

This is part of the vast structural shift in the human capital marketplace worldwide. Firms have the ability and incentive to be far more selective in their hires. But project managers and professionals also have the bandwidth and desire to showcase their skills. The resume is rapidly mutating away from a documentary string of alphanumeric text into a multimedia platform that projects precisely the brand image and substance a job candidate seeks to convey. Did they teach you that in college or grad school? Of course not. Will you learn that by hanging around LinkedIn or Facebook? Probably not.

Is this how human capital markets will become more efficient and effective tomorrow? Absolutely. You've got to have skill to show off your knowledge.

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Michael Schrage is a researcher at MIT Sloan School's Center for Digital Business and a visiting fellow at the Imperial College Business School

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