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The skills divide

Posted by Chad O'Connor  February 25, 2013 11:00 AM

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While the U.S. government has just avoided the perils of the fiscal cliff, our nation’s college seniors face a looming crisis of their own: the graduation cliff. This is the moment at which a college student metamorphoses into an unemployed person in the unfortunate event that they are unable to secure gainful employment. And with 53.6% of all Bachelor’s degree-holders under age 25 being either unemployed or underemployed, more young people than ever before are falling over this cliff. Their college debts will loom large over their heads as they struggle to find a paying job of any kind – let alone one that inspires them or challenges and expands their minds. We’re graduating some incredibly bright and talented minds. So why can’t they find jobs?

According to Plato, “one man cannot practice many arts with success.” And though this will surely win me a host of detractors, the American education system – one that encourages students to expand their minds and pursue their dreams – has failed its graduates. I’ll submit that a liberal arts curriculum is an entirely inappropriate form of education for most of its students. Liberal arts educations became so coveted hundreds of years ago because only the very wealthy could afford them. In today’s economic climate the same holds true. Eschewing vocational majors in favor of becoming a scholar is a luxury. Exposing oneself to dozens of subjects before committing to a field of study is the perfect form of higher education for those who can afford to have no job prospects at the conclusion of an astronomically expensive four-year investment. For most Americans, it is simply impractical.

Manpower Group reported that 6 of the 10 most in-demand jobs don’t even require a college degree and that American employers are struggling far more than their global counterparts to find the right talent. The key point of education is to help them compete in a global economy and become productive, intelligent and thoughtful members of society. A liberal arts education can deliver “thoughtful and intelligent” graduates, but it fails miserably at preparing these graduates to compete on a global scale. So what type of education enables graduates to get jobs, become productive members of society, and achieve financial freedom?

While it’s true that students can receive an excellent education in certain hot fields such as computer science from a liberal arts college, they can also develop the same skills by attending a technical institute, community college, or business college – at a mere fraction of the cost. At some point, Americans have to weigh the practical advantages of vocational education over the idealistic intangibles offered by a liberal arts education. Parents, many of whom attended college and may have felt the pressure to conform to the classic historical ideal, may at first be wary of sending their children to vocational schools. However, they must weigh this hesitation against the prospect of having their offspring return from an expensive liberal arts education to live with them in perpetuity – entirely unable to pay room or board. When was last time you met a chronically unemployed computer programmer, nurse, or electrician? A deep appreciation of literature will indeed make you a more complete person. But in the age of the Internet, there’s no reason such an appreciation can’t be developed online for free.

While there are numerous problems with our country’s traditional education model, there is also no shortage of potential remedies. I look forward to sharing with you my thoughts on the challenges facing graduates as they prepare to pursue jobs and how we can increase their chances of success by broadening our definition of education.

Art Papas is the founder and CEO of Bullhorn, the global leader in recruiting software. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Massachusetts Staffing Association, Portfolio Science Inc. and the HR.COM Online Staffing and Sourcing Advisory Board.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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