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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Earned a college degree; got a pizza box

Last Monday evening, a professional career counselor in Plymouth named Jim Danielski received this email:

“Mr. Danielski: I am trying to assist my college graduate son in his pursuit of a job.  He graduated in 2010 with a degree in Political Science.  He really didn't have a plan of where that would lead him for a career and it is no surprise that he is having a great deal of difficulty finding employment.  He spent his first months after college delivering pizzas and is now employed by the Humane Society.  He wants to move forward but is unsure which direction to take.  He is willing to seek other education or certification, but to do that without a plan would be unwise. I am interested in finding support in assessing his skills and interests and getting the direction that he needs to find employment.  Is this something that your firm is able to do?  Could you please let me know what services you are able to provide, and some idea of the costs involved?”

Danielski receives inquiries like this at a brisk pace. He has a thriving business helping workers of all ages (most notably lost and indebted recent college grads and their parents) figure out fruitful career paths.

That email illustrates a key point of Bridge Magazine’s recent special report on Michigan’s future workplace. Our report suggests it is not good enough to simply move herds of students through college. They also need to understand the global workplace. Many don’t.

Our series has received quite a bit of response from experts in the education industry. Pushback we’ve heard goes something like this: “Education is our responsibility, careers are not.” And, "If students just master critical thinking and problem-solving skills inherent in a liberal arts education, they'll be fine."

Those wave-offs don't wash for folks like that nervous father who just emailed Jim Danielski. For that family, COLLEGE + STUDENT LOAN DEBT = JOBS DELIVERING PIZZA AND CLEANING ANIMAL CAGES.

As someone who believes in and benefited from a college liberal arts education, that reality makes me cringe.

There are many folks in Michigan like that degree-toting pizza boy -- whether anybody in power wants to admit it or not. And the best job projections Bridge Magazine could find suggest the state could see a lot more of them in coming years – even as some prosperous professions won’t have enough highly trained workers.

Yet some defenders of Michigan’s current education system have expressed displeasure and uneasiness at any implication by Bridge Magazine that the college-to-career pipeline deserves some scrutiny.

They scoff at future job projections as a simplistic way to think about the importance of having a highly educated work force. No doubt, there’s no way to fully predict the future needs of the work force. Innovative firms like Microsoft, Google, and many others have transformed work force needs in short periods of time. It’s probably folly to attempt wholesale engineering of college degree offerings to match some hypothetical future workforce. And data clearly suggests that no matter the particular major, the mere acquisition of college degrees has greatly enhanced individuals’ lifetime earning potential.

But it’s equally simplistic to completely ignore future projections. Firms of all sizes might question industry projections, or weigh industry projections against other factors, but, in many industries, future projections are a staple of business strategy.

Some people reacted to the Bridge jobs report as if we’re calling for some kind of jihad on academic freedom. That troubles me for some personal reasons.

For years, many thought leaders have rightfully worried that only a quarter of Michigan adults hold a bachelor’s degree. To ultimately move that needle, many families would have to produce college graduates for the first time. A generation ago, my family was one of those.

I was the second person in the history of a very large extended family to attend college. Without a lot of pure luck, I easily could have ended up delivering pizzas and cleaning kitty litter boxes after graduation.

My dad (a window salesman) and mom (a state government secretary) clawed their way into the middle class when it was easier to do so through straightforward hard work. We had no idea how to navigate the college landscape, how to choose a school, how to pick a major, how to leverage a degree into a prosperous career path. We simply had steely faith and determination that going to college would somehow result in more opportunity for me.

I grew up near Michigan State University, but chose to attend Western Michigan University simply because “western” and “Kalamazoo” sounded exotic. (And I’d already sampled quite a bit of the college nightlife in East Lansing.) I wandered around for several years, picking up more off-campus street smarts than book smarts. I switched majors several times, quickly fell in and out of the notion of becoming a teacher, and ended up as an English major because I liked to read and write. I panicked as graduation neared. I had no idea what I wanted to do, no idea what the professional work world was all about and no idea how I’d parlay an English degree into a decent job.

Late in the game, I stumbled on to the staff of the college newspaper. I landed under the wing of an adjunct journalism professor who went far beyond his job description and salary to mentor me. I won a modest scholarship and a college writing award or two. And a few weeks before graduation, I found a way to shake hands at a big statewide newspaper editors’ dinner and eventually fast-talked my way into a job as a cub reporter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

I recall no career counseling as an undergrad, no sense of institutional mission to lead me toward viable career options. That’s not a knock against Western. I love Western. I loudly croon the alma mater. It’s just that plenty of friends and I didn’t get the sense that the colleges we attended thought it was their responsibility to instruct us at all in the big, bad world of work.

Michigan's biggest college mismatches

Job projections from federal data show Michigan public universities and private colleges producing surpluses and deficits when it comes to graduates' skill sets. The largest such mismatches are shown below.

FieldProjected annual openings 2009-10University degrees2009-10 private degrees2009-10 total degreesDeficit/surplus
Business, mgmt, & financial operations23,20010,6917,26217,953-23%
Computer and math professionals3,2421,7837952,578-20%
Health care professionals9,9786,9181,6868,604-14%
Engineers3,8202,9847093,696-3%
Elementary/secondary teachers3,4413,2616893,95015%
Communications/journalism/PR1,5912,8663103,176100%
Lawyers8525381,4461,984133%

I fear that’s still the case. I’m basing that fear on the many lost-and-under-employed-college-grad anecdotes I’ve heard from Jim Danielski and Bridge Magazine’s recent reporting.

I wonder what it would take to require today’s undergrads to organize, think through and write a personal success strategy -- and have that strategy challenged in the same way great professors challenge a thesis?

I wonder because nearly 20 years after receiving my bachelor’s degree, I went back to school and earned a MBA from the University of Michigan. One of the most challenging -- and rewarding -- assignments in that program was to complete a personal business strategy for what I would do with the credential once I had it in my hot little hands. Is it unreasonable to suggest all college students could benefit from such an exercise?

Back to that panicked inquiry in Jim Danielski’s in-box … We can debate whether the system is failing that political science grad or whether he’s failing himself. But this much is clear: the mere acquisition of a college degree -- which some thought leaders behold as something akin to the sacred answer -- has not put this kid on any path resembling a path toward prosperity.

The reporting in Bridge Magazine suggests he is far from an isolated phenomenon.

Back in the dorm at Western, the opening line of the theme song to “Cheers,” the 1980s sitcom, drew us to the TV lounge: “Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got …”

That’s truer now than when Ted Danson had dark hair.

Can or will the education system and policy-makers take any responsibility for it beyond graduation day?

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