Monday, March 23, 2009

An old joke, but still funny

English majors have gotten this line before, but it's still funny to see in webcomic form.

My personal experience has been that an English degree has exactly as much value as any other liberal arts degree, which is: letters after your name. I've had a few jobs for which it mattered that I had a college degree, but it didn't really matter which degree. At least with a liberal arts degree, it's less important that I have any particular skills imparted by my years in school, because I didn't learn many. The sum total of the practical skills I picked up in my four years as an English major came from one single copy-editing class, and I've never needed these skills for a job. But a lot of jobs have wanted me to hold a degree.

I think it's mostly a matter of job-application triage. For any decent job, employers have at least a few dozen times more applicants than openings available. Being able to instantly limit that stack of applications by culling the ones without a degree, or without a specific amount of experience, or whatever arbitrary hoops you set, simplifies the hiring process. It doesn't matter if the job requires a college-specific skill set; it doesn't matter if the job is learn-as-you-go, and therefore requires no real experience. If you can simplify your hiring process, you're happier. And, you're shifting the boundary upward -- you're selecting for applicants more qualified than you actually need. This seems like a good thing, but it isn't necessarily. If your applicants are truly overqualified and savvy enough to know it, they'll be looking elsewhere. And you're cutting yourself off from the people who meet the real needs of the job but don't meet the artificial hiring standards you've put in place. The best fit for the job won't even get an interview.

Which is its own problem. The person who'll do best at the interview process is probably, in aggregate, not be the best person for the job. You're hiring a person based on job-interview skills, not job-performance skills. It's a slightly more human version of hiring someone based on whose resume is neatest. The best-presented, smoothest-talking applicant isn't necessarily the one with the most substance. The interview system works best if you're hiring someone for a sales or management job, where performance skills and interview skills have significant overlap. But if you're hiring a computer programmer or a theater tech, you're trying to pick winners based on irrelevant data....

This topic is on my mind for two reasons. First, I know a lot of people looking for work, and I've been thinking them positive thoughts. The job market is hard now, both because so few people are hiring, and because for any open jobs you're competing with a much larger number of qualified applicants who have recently found themselves out of work. Freelancers have the same problem; when you're bidding for that plumbing job, you're now competing with a hundred other guys, all recently laid off from big homebuilders, all willing to work for less (sometimes much less) than the going rate, just to have the work. Times are tough, and I'm not seeing an end.

Second, we spent a frustrating two hours at the AT&T store today trying to cancel our cell-phone service at work, being tormented by a perky but clueless and utterly unhelpful salesman. And I kept thinking, "you beat out how many other applicants for this job?!?"


NerfSmuggler said...

The same disparity between interview skills vs. working skills can be observed in election campaigning skills vs. skill at actually governing.

Jeff Mountjoy said...

This has never occurred to me, but it's a great observation. I suspect the same disparity occurs (where you're selected for a task based on criteria other than your specific skill for the task) all over the place, in a lot of contexts.

It occurs to me that it's a bit different with the President. Like salesmen, there's a significant amount of overlap between campaigning skills and extremely high-level playing of politics. A lot of the job involves, essentially, the same skills as a campaign, especially as it involves foreign relations. The biggest problem with selecting Presidents is that the best people for the job are weeded out by the early stages of the selection process. And, no sane person would want the job.

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