Opinion: Carolina Beat

Battling Unrealistic Job Expectations

RALEIGH — “I’m highly educated, very qualified. I don’t need training. I need a job.”

That matter-of-fact statement stood out among dozens of comments addressed recently to a legislative committee looking into the best way for North Carolina to repay its $2.5 billion debt to the federal government for unemployment insurance benefits.

The speaker who uttered these three short sentences was not the only unemployed person to address the committee. Nor was she alone in urging lawmakers to reconsider options that would involve reducing the maximum amount of future unemployment benefits.

What struck this listener as particularly interesting about her comments was the degree to which they betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding about jobs.

Let’s start first with the final sentence: “I need a job.” I don’t doubt it. No one should envy a person whose livelihood depends on government-issued unemployment benefits. I do not intend to make light of any hardships she and her family have endured since she lost employment, and hope she has found a new job.

But one suspects that her job search might have been made more difficult by the sentiments expressed in the first two sentences quoted above. She informed her audience that she’s both “highly educated” and “very qualified.” Educated in what way? Qualified for what?

She also tells us definitively that she doesn’t need training. That is almost certainly untrue. Each of the six different full-time jobs I’ve held in the past 20 years required some degree of training — even the jobs that seemed on the surface to be nearly identical to the job I had just left. Technology changes. Different employers have different rules and procedures. Jobs with the same title almost invariably have at least a slightly different mix of duties and responsibilities.

Perhaps she meant that she didn’t need to return to school for a formal job training program. That might be true, though one cannot judge the accuracy of that assertion without knowing more about her education and qualifications. A “highly educated” worker is great, though an advanced degree in ancient Chinese pottery or 19th-century feminist theater might not be the best preparation for the 21st-century work force.

The point of this column, though, is not to pick on a particular unemployed worker. Instead, I suspect that her attitude about her current job predicament is a common one — one that’s exacerbated by the oft-repeated mantra that increasing levels of education guarantee positive economic outcomes.

You’ve heard the message: Go to college, and boost your lifetime earning potential. You’ll make much more money during the course of your working years.

Ask how much education is enough, and you’ll likely hear the answer “more.” Ask what kind of education, or what basic skills that dollar-generating education must include, and the answer is even less clear.

If politicians and pundits continue to oversell higher education, it’s hard to blame a “highly educated” person for believing that she’s “very qualified” for a job, regardless of the type of education she’s pursued, the type of qualifications she’s developed, or the types of jobs available in a given market.

Regardless of the political promises, a job is not a reward for some level of educational achievement. It’s not the guaranteed result or entitlement tied to an investment in a particular degree or certificate. You can’t trade your cap and gown for a weekly paycheck.

Your “highly educated,” “very qualified” background means little if it doesn’t mesh with the employer’s needs. Rather than offering vague assurances that a larger dose of traditional higher education is the one-size-fits-all answer to future economic needs, perhaps it’s time to devote more attention to alternative types of education and early work experiences.

On-the-job training and job-related courses available a la carte from both traditional and nontraditional sources might help. Rather than sitting in a classroom for another year while chasing an academic credential, new and future workers could devote time instead to building the types of skills and qualifications that will help them cope with the economic ups and downs they’re bound to face in the years ahead.

Mitch Kokai is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.