Thursday, May 2, 2013

Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

For the vast majority of job seekers, going to college is worthless. Actually, that's not true. It has exactly one worthy purpose: to show employers that you went to college. Increasingly, a college degree is being used as a signal. So what I really meant to say is that going to college does not actually give you skills that make you a more productive worker.

And this is the tragedy of college. Too many people go to college, pay exorbitant sums of money for 4-6 years, and then wind up with a piece of paper that didn't really make them a better worker. They just went there because people expected them to go. And if you didn't go to college, well you must not be the kind of guy who understands how the system works.

And that's the real "value" of college. It tells people that you know how to play the game. And because that is better than not knowing how to play the game, it makes you more valuable in the eyes of an employer. This only becomes an issue when a person is intelligent and aware of the game but also doesn't want to waste 4 years of time and money just so they can have the decoder ring of employability. Because there are many well educated, intelligent, hard working high school graduates who could skip college altogether and join the workforce and be just as productive as a regular college graduate were it not for the fact that most college degrees are economic signals.

This is less true in my line of work. I'm a software developer. And the great thing about my job is that it gets very easy to tell whether you can do the job or not. Because unlike other jobs, where all you really need is sentience, somewhat effective communication skills, and literacy, software development is literally a do or die proposition. Either the product exists or it doesn't. And when it doesn't exist, it's painfully obvious to everyone attached to the project. So if you can't make the product, you get canned.

Actually that's not true either. You wouldn't have gotten hired in the first place. Most employable software developers are savvy enough to design interviews in such a way where we can easily weed out people who obviously can't do the job. Anybody we feel unsure about we don't hire, because of the enormous financial risk involved in hiring and paying a developer. Only people that we feel absolutely confident who can do the job get the nod.

But unfortunately, even people in the software industry have to resort to signals. Since open positions get flooded with applications, the hiring manager needs a way to thin the amount of applicants we interview. Interviewing takes a long time and involves a lot of people (the hiring manager, the technical lead, other key people in the project for "culture fit"). And that means each interview takes up hours of time that could have been spent getting the product out the door.

So we resort to signals. You need to be able to structure your resume the right way so a quick glance can signal to the employer that you're worth a real look. And we can also drastically thin the herd by making a college degree a requirement for the job. And that's a real shame, because I know a few guys who didn't graduate from college and are good developers. The only problem is they have fewer ways to signal to employers that they're not like the vast majority of people without college degrees who would be incapable of doing the job.

From the employer's point of view, they can't afford to spend time trying to pick a diamond out of a very large rough. It's easier just to have a cutoff and people who can't meet the cutoff don't get considered. Convenience trumps "getting it right", because even though the best person for the job might not have a college degree, it's just not very likely. Those friends I was just talking about? Huge exceptions.

Something that would be very useful to employers would be a skills and cognition test. An employment firm could develop a test that would be, say...200 multiple choice questions (6 possible answers, penalties for guesses), and a quick writing section. The only questions on the test would be based on simple math (no calculus, combinatorics, or geometry), reading comprehension, and logic. The writing section would be used to determine whether the candidate can communicate effectively on paper (an incredibly important and useful skill). The test should take around 3 hours (which would also deter lazier candidates from applying) and those who pass a cutoff point can be granted interviews where a trusted person can determine culture fit and general demeanor.

That would be ideal for finding qualified candidates for non-specialized entry level positions. And it would eliminate the effective requirement for a college degree. I'm a big fan of certification tests because you can design them to be narrow and specialized in scope to only test for the skills that employers actually want in a candidate. A college degree is too broad and subject to too many variables (quality of the college, range of curriculum, etc) to be an effective signal. The best signals are those that actually signal the exact qualities that employers are looking for in new employees.

Now, I'm not saying this would work for everybody. It could only work at the entry level (after you get your foot in the door, it's all about experience, experience, and experience). But perhaps it could eliminate years of pointless and expensive credentialing that young people go through just to have a shot at an interview. Or hell, just grant interviews based on SAT scores and a written essay unique to each firm.

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