Degree of nonsense

Posted: April 07, 2013

'TIS THE week that college-admission offices send their official acceptance and rejection letters to hopeful applicants. Those cheers and groans you've been hearing are from high-school seniors wondering where they'll park their lives for the next four years.

The din is almost - but not quite - drowning out the panicked cries of soon-to-be college grads. They must now pay back the truckloads of money they borrowed to pay for their pigskins. Their debt will swell the $1 trillion tab already owed by U.S. college grads.

Given the lousy job market, how are indentured degree holders supposed to earn paychecks big enough to get themselves out of hock? Let alone buy homes, start businesses and invest for the future?

Frankly, these questions are best asked of employers - too many of whom make a college degree a requirement for a job. Which is nuts, since only a few careers actually require the knowledge one acquires by obtaining a degree.

Accounting? For sure. Medicine? Well, duh. Law? Ditto (and, hey, props to Drexel Law School for allowing students to get their juris doctorates in two years instead of three, so they can start earning a salary sooner).

For millions of others, though, all the degree does is get their foot in the door for an interview and, hopefully, a job offer. But that's damn expensive pay-to-play, isn't it?

The game is also terribly unfair to those who haven't the economic resources, cultural influence or plain old desire to obtain a degree - but who may possess in spades the qualities any boss would value.

Such as creativity, leadership skills, a killer work ethic and the ability to juggle multiple responsibilities at the same time.

It's high time employers stopped using a college degree as an automatic screening tool for all potential hires. The good news is, some local players are already doing just that.

At Wawa, for example, it's possible for a non-degreed, entry-level store cashier to rise through the ranks to become a general manager. To grow beyond that position, says Wawa manager of talent acquisition David Filano, a degree may be required. But Wawa will often offer tuition reimbursement so a manager can get the degree he needs to grow.

Filano also touts Wawa's College Graduate Leadership Program, which pays selected employees' college-loan payments, up to $5,250 per year.

That's some perk.

Over at Boscov's, talented employees who lack degrees won't lack the chance to advance in many company positions, says senior human resources veep Ed Elko. Boscov's assistant buyers, for example, don't need degrees, and it's possible to become a buyer without one, too, if the required skills are mastered.

The Philadelphia Federal Credit Union requires degrees for its top executive positions, says communications specialist Karen Eavis. But not for entry-level gigs in PFCU's branches and call centers, where employees have been promoted from within based on performance and years of experience.

And at Comcast, says communications director John Demming, no degree is required for any number of the 129,000 jobs offered through the corporation's many subsidiaries. Better still, he says, many employees take advantage of Comcast's tuition-reimbursement program to further their education on the company's dollar.

Imagine: By the time they have degrees, they'll have accrued work experience that will make them attractive to employers elsewhere.

But by then, they might not want to leave the place that treated them so well, according to Penn sociology professor emeritus Ivar Berg, author of Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery, a pioneering primer on the sociology of education.

"Studies have shown that people with college degrees are presumed to be more productive," Berg told me, when the actual data in his and others' research doesn't bear that out.

In fact, he noted, a study of newly hired lab techs at two Ivy League research institutions showed that those who were hired without degrees, then given training and promotions in response to their hard work, had more longevity on their jobs than higher-credentialed new hires at a competing university, who brought more turnover to the workplace.

"The ones who were trained and promoted felt a greater sense of loyalty and appreciation to their jobs," says Berg. "Their labs were happier places to work."

Granted, workplaces are more transient these days. A non-degreed employee who is highly valued on the job today could find himself pink-slipped tomorrow - and competing for new jobs against candidates whose college experience gives them an edge with some recruiters.

But we've got to start somewhere. Because the massive cost of a college degree is simply unsustainable.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: philly.com/ronnieblog

Columns: philly.com/Ronnie

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