When It Comes to Getting a Job, Americans Believe Skills Trump College

People see social intelligence and computer knowledge as more important than a four-year degree in preparing for the workplace, according to a new poll.

Earn a college degree, and you’ll set yourself up for life: a stable job, salary, and mortgage. That was the old adage for generation after generation, following World War II. Yet, both young and old workers no longer hold the same abiding faith in the power of four-year degree, according to the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll.

Instead, understanding computer technology, working well with different types of people, keeping your skills current, and having good family connections trump the importance of college—at least, when it comes to people’s notions of what it takes to succeed in the modern workplace. “If you don’t have a good grip on technology, it is very hard to succeed,” said 45-year-old Christine Welch of Idaho, who has three children, ages 17 to 25.

The career paths of Welch’s children personify these new building blocks of career success laid out by many of the poll respondents. Her 25-year-old daughter, for example, works as a graphic designer. She embarked on that career without a college degree, relying instead on her technical and artistic skills to propel her along. Welch’s middle son recently graduated with an associate’s degree in structural engineering from a technical pipe-welder program at Idaho State University. Both children started down these career paths early and mastered highly technical skills, without assuming that a four-year college degree would automatically set them on the best path. (Welch’s third child is still in high school).

College is too expensive now to make that gamble, Welch said—for students to just assume that a degree will set up their career, or automatically confer the skills that they’ll need to get ahead. “If young people can find their calling and pathway, their odds of being successful are so much greater than someone who does not know what they’re doing,” she added. “I’m not sure that college is the best for everyone.”

That’s a startling admission in the United States, where college has long been seen as a Holy Grail to the good life, and, in fact, economic studies show that college graduates still earn far more than those without degrees over their working life. In the Heartland Monitor poll, most people still thought college was an important foundation for a successful work life. But that was hardly an overwhelming verdict either among older or younger people who responded to the poll.

The poll divided respondents into two broad groups: a younger cohort that qualifies as still starting out, and an older cohort that has passed that initial stage of life. The poll defines the younger cohort as all adults aged 18-24, plus the nearly three-fourths of those aged 25-29 who identified themselves as “still ‘getting started in life.’” The poll defined the older cohort as the remaining roughly one-fourth of 25-to-29-year-olds, plus all respondents over the age of 30.

Just 55 percent of the younger group in the poll thought that a four-year degree was “very important” for a good career. Among older respondents, 53 percent agreed. Roughly one-third of each group thought a degree was “somewhat important,” with the remaining one-in-eight in each case considering college not important at all.

That assessment placed the college degree surprisingly close to the middle of the pack for both older and younger respondents when they were asked to rank the attributes that will produce a successful career. For both groups, attributes that reflected an ability to adapt to change topped the list. Older respondents put the most emphasis on “a detailed understanding of how to use computer technology” (85 percent very important); “being able to work with people from many backgrounds” (79 percent); “keeping your skills current through training” (also 79 percent); and “having good family connections” (61 percent). For the older respondents, obtaining the college degree ranked next, ahead of other attributes including “being willing to work long hours” (51 percent very important); “being willing to switch to new jobs and occupations” (48 percent); “being able to create your own job” (45 percent); and “becoming well known in your field and/or your community” (41 percent).

Younger people just starting out largely expressed the same priorities, though in slightly different order. For them, being able to work with diverse colleagues (82 percent very important) topped the list, followed by maintaining skills after finishing school (79 percent); mastering computer technology (77 percent); family connections (59 percent); obtaining the college degree; and becoming well known in your field or community (47 percent). For younger people, being willing to work long hours or to switch jobs, and creating your own job followed at slightly lower levels. Both older and younger respondents placed the least weight on five factors: knowing a foreign language (though this tied with creating your own job among the young); keeping up on cultural trends; having volunteer experience; being willing to relocate to new cities; and mastering social media.

Even poll respondents on track to earn degrees, in followup interviews, presented a more nuanced view of the college credential. “Most jobs now require both experience and a degree,” said 22-year-old Anthony Libutti of Staten Island, who is studying accounting, finance, and economics at the College of Staten Island and simultaneously working for a construction company. “Part of college is being able to make those networking connections.”

On the other hand, even self-avowed technophobes see mastery of computer skills as vital in a world where the economy and career paths change so rapidly and relentlessly. William O’Shea, 79, of Connecticut worked for years as a school superintendent before he retired in 1997. During that time, he said he blissfully never used computers that much. Now, he said, no one in the workplace would be able to get away with that behavior. “It is indispensable now. The world has sped up,” he said.

When asked about other important skills for a successful career, O’Shea, like most poll respondents from both the younger and older cohort, cited social intelligence and the ability to work well with different people. “You have to understand the strengths and weaknesses of human nature, if you want to climb the ladder and appeal to other people,” he said.  

And, what about the old reliable standby, the college degree? Even O’Shea, a former educator, sounded a little down on it. “It carries the mystique of success,” he said. “The idea of the importance of going to college and graduating depends on the school. There are colleges and then, there are colleges.”

Attitudes on the centrality of the college degree shifted slightly across racial and ethnic lines, as well as party affiliation. African American and Hispanic respondents, both young and old, viewed a college degree as a more important asset or skill than whites did. Democrats also overwhelmingly listed it as a higher priority, compared to Republican and independent voters.

Even presence of the student debt did not affect younger people’s assessment of college as a necessary skill for the workplace. Although young people with college debts often report more financial strain than those without them, the percentage of young people, with and without student debt, who saw college as a “very important” skill was virtually identical. The same held true for young people, regardless of whether their parents attended college.

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