Insights How dead is the college degree in tech?

How dead is the college degree in tech?

A frequent comment I’ve heard from individuals in the tech community is “you don’t need to go to college anymore!  You can just get your understanding of tech from certifications or online training”.  I’ve heard the same in the context of reskilling activities as well, “here’s our AI master-class bootcamp certification and you’ll be ready to go in the world of artificial intelligence.”  Let’s unpack that… there is more than meets the eye.

Are colleges doing a great job at preparing students for the workforce?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  Are students from a variety of backgrounds able to succeed in the workforce and outperform a college graduate?  100% yes.  In fact, non-traditional backgrounds can be richer and more complete than many college graduates achieve.  Should a college education be a litmus test for tech advancement at any level?  No, it shouldn’t. The framing of the discussion should focus on the combination of vocational and non-vocational (or liberal arts) skills. We’ve seen time and time again that highly functional team members require emotional intelligence, ability to ask the right questions, “tiger blood”, and self-awareness.  Does this come from learning how to code in Blazor?  Not really.

You might be surprised to hear that the most critical parts of a full college education for me are literature, history, theology, philosophy, speech, the arts, and sports.  Why? Because a person that can talk about big topics and rigorously debate is able to ask the WHY questions in a workplace. Jurassic Park famously asked, “they are focused on if they can do something.  They never stop to ask if they should do something”.  Isn’t continuously asking “why” the most important question of all?  The most successful projects I’ve been a part of are the ones where I vigorously understood the “why” question and the ones where I missed are the ones where I made too many assumptions.  Learning to ask great questions, possessing resiliency, understanding the history that came before, and applying greater perspective differentiates a person in the workplace.

The modern tech team member has a combination of tech skills and emotional intelligence that facilitates real and transparent conversations about the “right opportunity to pursue”.  The students I’ve best experienced who possess this skill had something beyond a technical prowess.  They possessed an ability to engage in the serious questions and understood the unique value of every person. They bring that full-circle understanding to the table in their work and it reflects in their leadership, work ethic, and the way they think about opportunities.

Should colleges eschew technical education all together then?  Go back to the basics as it where?  We’re seeing many “liberal arts only colleges” that produce excellent graduates who can do most anything. That said, practical vocational skills are eventually necessary. We need to facilitate a balance between tech education and the liberal arts in a way that conveys the importance of both skills. We often see people hired, or successful as consultants because they are the right “people fit”.  This isn’t usually just because of likability, but often because they ask excellent questions and match their technical capabilities with meaningful engagement.

If I recall my own college experience, I think back fondly on my literature, theology, and philosophy classes that ignited in me the desire to continuously learn and read.  These inform me to this day.  In the same context, I recall that my actual technology skills came about through a combination of classwork and practical activity in the field through internships, which could not have been replaced alternatively.

Does this mean that college is absolutely necessary, or even the preferred path?  Not necessarily, but it should reinforce that the measure of a person is a collage of their capabilities and that purely focusing on the technical path (or STEM) will create people who perform tasks but can’t activate the creative parts of their brain.  We need education to value, fund, and encourage all parts of the critical educational elements. Technical graduates who also have a foundation in virtue and critical thinking are ultimately better equipped to perform well, but also to make the most of who they are. This can come from college, or another source, but we should value it as much as we value the pure STEM talent.

Finally, what does this mean for reskilling? Understand that as your team continues to skill in the modern economy the educational climb is never done. The best team members are those that continuously learn, not those that complete a learning journey and then stop.  Also understand that the next transition will be even more dependent on growth mindset and creative skills because the automation of everyday tasks will give way to dynamic tasks.  Think of it as working “on the business” vs. “in the business”.  Elevating ourselves away from simply performing tasks to engaging our top 1% capability that is part of every human person is critical.

So, how does this translate into hiring?  When posting jobs, don’t post educational requirements or just a list of hard skills. Focus on the qualities of the person that are important to your post. First, if you write dynamic and interesting posts, you’ll attract the best candidates.  In addition, you’ll encourage a workforce and educational system that has all of these qualities present.

What of this for colleges and other educational entities?  Understand that your duty is to make people the best versions of themselves.  To do anything less is both to cheapen humanity, as well as to devalue that which is most special about us.  If you were to draw an analogy between AI and a person, the furthest analogy is our unique consciousness and not our ability to perform a “top quartile human task”.  Value that and you’ll build people and organizations that matter.