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Is hyper-specialization killing the US Economy and ruining lives?

I studied to be a pastor in college.  That is, I majored in pastoral ministry and minored in biblical languages.  But it was basically a liberal arts degree.  It was basically an expansion of the ‘liberal arts’ education I received in high school, which I suppose was similar to most people’s.  You learn a smattering of a whole bunch of stuff and the idea is that this prepares you to do just about anything you want down the road.  Such an education is supposed to give you a well rounded experience to serve as a foundation for your eventual career of choice.  A college level liberal arts degree is supposed to do the same thing, except as I have personally discovered, employers these days could care less about a such things;  my ‘pastoral ministry’ degree is virtually useless outside of actually becoming a pastor.

My liberal arts education and theology emphasis has come in handy as a Christian apologist but I can’t say that it has helped put bread on the table.  I know a fair number of fellow ‘pastoral ministry’ graduates who ended up delivering pizzas and a variety of other jobs they were ‘over qualified’ for.

Now, you could argue that this was their and my fault.  We ought to have picked a degree program that would make it more likely that we could find a decent job.  But I don’t think so.  I think in some sense we were sold a mirage.  We were ‘told’ that our liberal arts education would give us a leaping off point into many if not most careers.  There is just one teensy-weensy problem:  that is not the way employers think.

Let’s say I am applying for a job as a business manager at a company.  The employer has two resumes in front of him, mine, and the one belonging to the gent who graduated from the same university as I did but with a ‘business degree’ (read: a liberal arts degree with a business emphasis).  The employer is obviously going to go with the one whose ‘education’ is in line with ‘business.’  Wouldn’t you?

So again you say, “But that’s still your fault!  You picked your degree program.  He picked his.  These are the consequences.”

But the other thing that I’ve learned is that a bachelor’s degree emphasis isn’t quite enough.  Universities today offer graduate courses in just about everything it seems.  This product has been sold to prospective students as a way to advance their career and employers can’t complain about having candidates who may need a little less orientation apply for their jobs.    Given a choice between someone with a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s degree in business, who would you choose?

So you say, “But that’s the dude’s fault who stuck with just the bachelor’s degree in business.  If he really wanted to succeed he ought to have put in the work and got his Master’s.”

But universities have thought it a swell way to make a bit more money to offer PhD programs for just about everything you can conceive of.  Given a choice between someone with a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in economics and a PhD in economics, who would you hire?

But now it gets interesting.  The guy who has hyper-specialized and put in ten years or so of academic learning has also plunked down a fair bit of change.  He’s got loans to pay for.  He has a right to demand a premium in his salary for his higher level of education.  If you were a business owner trying to tighten your belt and had a choice between some slacker with a mere Masters and a guy with a PhD who would demand twice as much in salary and benefits, what would you do?

If the business owner says, “I can’t afford the PhD.  I love him, but I can’t afford him.  I gotta take the guy with the Masters” the guy with the PhD in economics now has a highly specialized degree that he has advanced as far as can get and… no job.

That’s ok!  The local dairy farm is hiring.  So our earnest PhD with a background in business and economics heads down the farm and slides his resume over.  The secretary gives him an interesting look.  She’s got a stack of resumes already, but these folks have advanced degrees in agriculture or whatever.  Here’s this character with an economics degree!

The current economy highlights what hyper-specialization has wrought.  Not that everyone has advanced to terminal degrees, mind you, but certainly there is an abundance of folks with other degrees.  Employers have the pick of the litter every time and go with ‘credentials’ as often as they can.  It makes sense that they would.  Unfortunately for the poor slouches who specialized- even a slouch like myself who did so rather minimally in having a theology emphasis to an otherwise ‘liberal arts’ degree- they are S.O.L.  They’ve got the degree, but they are edged out by others with higher degrees, or more ‘relevant’ degrees, and they are stuck working at McDonalds while they… get another degree.

The problems are not limited to potential employees.  Employers have imbibed this mindset that largely favors candidates who have the right degree, the right licensing, the right credentials, etc, etc, and show no signs (well, I haven’t seen any signs) of changing this mindset.   (Why would they?  As likely as not, the government requires their candidates to have the right licensing and credentials!).  So now we have an unemployment rate of 9.2% but a ‘real unemployment rate’ of 16% and higher (see this HuffingtonPost article).  The economy is just awash in job seekers, many of them no doubt with just the sort of specializations an employer may be interested in.  Too bad the employer is in Florida but the prospective candidate lives in California and owes much more than his house is worth and can’t leave California for the wages the employer can afford.  But this is a bed the employer helped make so he’s got to lie in it… he went along with this notion that ideal candidates will have yada yada yada degrees etc.   The employer now needs someone with XYZ credentials but he can’t pay enough to pull such people out of the morass they find themselves in hundreds of miles away.

Hyper-specialization may work in a booming economy when people can get in and out of their houses quickly but it is a millstone around our collective necks when people are pinned down by their mortgage and the available jobs shrink so drastically that there are- literally- hundreds and hundreds of applicants for almost every one of them.

What is the alternative?

Personally, I think specialization is, in the main, a bad idea.   When a society becomes addicted to it but the supply dries up, the addict gets jittery.  Specialization communicates this idea that areas of human knowledge and endeavor can be put into compartments, as though information and ideas from other fields have no bearing on what is going on in your field.  As an apologist, I see this a lot:  very smart people who know a lot about their particular box but utterly dependent on people in a different box, with nobody to stand above all the boxes and show how something ties all together.  So, you end up with people in a little box making pronouncements about things outside their box who aren’t actually equipped to do so.  By that I mean that they do not know how to think in an integrated fashion.  When they do speak outside their place, you can be sure that someone else is waiting to jump on their face for trespassing in their ‘box.’  But that person is equally ill-equipped to think in an integrated fashion.   We also tend to get lazy, refusing to think for ourselves and punting to experts which, as this humorous example shows, can backfire.

You might think that I am proposing that a general ‘liberal arts’ approach is really what we need.  Yea, maybe.  I think the issue is that you probably can’t do both.  If you’re going to do specialization, then you’ve got to do specialization right from the start.  Say, first grade.  🙂  If you’re going to do ‘liberal arts’ then you should extend that for as far as you can and still get away with it.  (Some fields, obviously, will need ‘specialization.’)  But what we do is take kids fresh out of high school at the ripe and wise age of 18 with a liberal arts education and bid them to choose a career or general direction.  We don’t tell them that if they pick the wrong one, or if the economy falls flat, they’re screwed.  And how could they possibly anticipate where the economy is going to be for their emphasis of choice 4 years or 5 years or even 8 years out?  Those of us who have been around the block a few times couldn’t do that, but we ask our high school seniors to do it every year.

I think maybe I’d dispense with the latent assumption we all share that because you’ve taken a few classes in something you actually know what you’re talking about or know how to think.  The width and breadth of what there is to know is so immense that a dozen or a hundred courses focused on any aspect of it wouldn’t exhaust what can be known.  There is no end to learning.  There is also no substitute for stepping into a job and just doing it.  The mentor/apprentice model seems more prudent to me.  I think employers already know they’re going to have to train their new employees so why not jettison this idea that the ‘best’ candidates will be the ones with degree X and pick the ones with the sharpest minds who exhibit the ability to think in integrated fashion?

A person trained to think in an integrated fashion will be able to do just about any job that’s out there, given good mentoring.  A person trained in only the affairs of their little box will be useful only inside that box.  When we have more people than boxes you’re left with people who have no where else to go with no one who will take them.

And I think that’s part of why our economic situation here in the US is as dire as it is today.


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