Category: Business

More Paths to the Middle Class

I went to a public junior high school in the late 1970s, where I took one of my favorite classes ever: wood shop. There was something about turning a rough chunk of wood into something beautiful and useful that really appealed to me. I still have a few of my creations, including a cutting board and a lamp.

I didn’t take the class seriously, though. I didn’t realize that some of the kids in “shop” with me were probably learning skills for a future career. To me, it was just something fun to do. An easy “A.”

Because it was implicit to me that I would attend college and have a career shaped around working with my head, not my hands. And there was never a question of whether my family could afford the cost of my higher education.

While I now support myself quite comfortably with my work in the “knowledge economy,” the allure of wood shop remains with me to this day. Few things that I do each weekday are something I can point to and say “I did that.” But I can show someone my cutting board and say “I made that.”

woodshopIn a previous post, I discussed some exciting new programs that are serving to correct what may be an over-emphasis on college. Now, I’ve come across an article in Slate that reinforces that point, delving deeper into the question of whether college is right for everybody. More importantly, it makes the point that education should serve to prepare people for the future and give them a shot at being self-supporting and having a better life, whatever form that might take.

We need to have “real options for our young people—options that include high-quality career and technical education,” says the author, Michael J. Petrilli, an executive with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  “We shouldn’t force anyone into that route, but we also shouldn’t guilt kids with low odds of college success—regardless of their race or class—to keep trudging through academic coursework as teens. Yet it appears that we are doing just that….”

Petrilli acknowledges that, by saying some kids just won’t cut it in college, he is vulnerable to accusations of determinism or classism. But he effectively deflects those arrows. “We should build a system that helps many students find another road to the middle class,” he says.

More options are always a good thing.

 

One Option Among Many

College is taking a beating. The costs to attend are the highest they’ve been in decades and the assurances that a degree will lead to meaningful employment are at the lowest. But what’s the alternative?

Recently, in the span of a week, I came across not just one but two reports about apprenticeship programs in technical fields. The programs, each sponsored by a company in need of skilled workers in connection with nearby high schools, teach young people the skills of a trade and provide a path that’s an alternative to college.

This got my attention. One of my best friends from high school decided to forgo college and today works in insurance. At the time, I thought he was making a mistake because for me, attending college was a forgone conclusion, a means to achieving a solid career and a clear mark of accomplishment. But lately I’m not so sure. Would my friend be making more money if he’d attended a college? Maybe. Is he worse off now than I am–me with a bachelor’s and master’s degree? Probably not.

College isn’t for everyone, nor was it ever intended to be. As more employers seek very specific sets of skills, and as the marketplace continues to change, the learning environment of college becomes less of a guarantee of success in the working world.sticker

With the costs of higher education skyrocketing, there’s no point in going deeply into debt if college is really not where your interests lie. In a class I took recently (at an institution of higher learning–yes I get the irony), we discussed college education in terms of the laws of supply and demand. The cost to supply higher education has increased due to increases in teacher salary, the costs of building or maintaining facilities, and the purchase of new equipment. At the same time, demand has increased as more and more high school graduates are made to believe that a college degree is necessary for their future success. This affects both the supply and demand curves and raises the price. In constant dollars, the cost of college from 1970 to 2007 has more than doubled.

The programs mentioned in these reports serve to correct what may be an over-emphasis on college. Along with similar forms of technical training, these programs are attractive for the reason that they both fill a void in the workforce and provide young workers with a purposeful career. A recent article in The Atlantic points out how, in many cases, college eduction is no longer the best predictor of an employee’s effectiveness. With more and better-analyzed data on people’s skills, a significant number of companies are looking “towards pools of candidates who didn’t attend college–for tech jobs, for high-end sales positions, for some managerial roles.” The upside is that attending college is only one option among many.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed college and have no regrets about attending. But I’m also aware of its limitations. Based on how things stand now, this country doesn’t need–nor is willing to pay for–more swishy liberal arts types (myself included) who sit in small rooms all day and produce big ideas. I’m not sure what that means for our future, and I’d be happy to hear thoughts on that, but for the present it stands to reason that we’ll all be better off with more people having the skills to move this country forward.

I hope these programs prove popular. They could be key to the development of the next generation.

[Update 2/26/14: For a good overview of these types of educational programs that seek to fill a need in the job market, see The School That Will Get You a Job in the Feb. 24, 2014 issue of Time Magazine.]

I Went to Summer Camp with Reid Hoffman

People who graduated from college between 1989 and 1992 have, for the most part, vanished from the public sphere. I graduated in 1990, so I find this development personally disturbing.

Over the last decade or so, I’ve been asking myself, of all the people I went to school with–from junior high through college–why have none of them achieved fame, fortune, or anything of permanent social value? The answer seems to have as much to do with market economics as with any talent, or lack thereof, intrinsic to my peers.

I can, however, claim one degree of separation from a person of my generation who has made a significant impact on our lives today: I went to summer camp with Reid Hoffman.

The author (left) and Reid Hoffman, on the right.

The author, left, and Reid Hoffman, on the far right, in 1980. (click to enlarge photo)

Hoffman, the billionaire founder of LinkedIn, clearly has achieved success. LinkedIn is quickly becoming the go-to resource for making business connections, an Internet version of Rotary Club meetings and golf outings with business partners. Today, Hoffman is one of the most influential people not only in Silicon Valley but also in the non-tech business arena, as LinkedIn is accepted by every corner of the world of work.

I remember that, even back then, Hoffman was a sharp guy, easy to get along with and full of ideas. He even had mock business cards printed up, which he distributed to his cabin-mates.

I have not confirmed any of this with Hoffman or his associates. We spent only three weeks together in 1980, so he is unlikely to remember me. But more importantly, I desperately want to be right. Without Hoffman, there is nobody of my generation who has “made it.” He is a symbol, and I want him to remain so.

Hoffman today (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Hoffman today (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

I could send Hoffman an invitation to connect on LinkedIn, but it wouldn’t mean much. He has over 227,000 followers — clearly, he’s a popular and busy guy. I would be a tiny fraction of his social network; it’s not like he’d ask me out to grab a beer or anything. Still, he symbolically holds the torch for all of us, and he is doing a fine job.

Random Scribbles: Can businesses think?

[Random Scribbles are my occasional posts of half-formed thoughts, half-baked ideas, and off-the-cuff observations.]

Bret Stephens is a good journalist. He obviously knows the worth of a provocative headline.

Today’s Wall Street Journal published his latest opinion piece, “Can Environmentalists Think?”  It got my attention.

I see what he’s doing here.  He’s crafting an argument in favor of his own beliefs, which is what all good opinion pieces do, I guess. But I think there is a logical fallacy here, though I can’t be bothered to look up the name for it.

Rather than pick the column apart bit by bit, I’m going to stick to the headline. My response is, “well, can businesses think?” To which he might respond, what kind of business are you referring to? They are not all the same.

Exactly.

Stephens is painting a generalized portrait of an environmental movement that is out of touch with reality to promote his belief that the Keystone XL pipeline by rights ought to be constructed. Never mind that TransCanada already has a pipeline, the Keystone pipeline running from Alberta to Illinois and Oklahoma, that began operation in 2010 without much ado. Never mind that the XL pipeline will be transporting crude from Canadian tar sands, a process that has a worse reputation than the so-called fracking.

Anyway, his point is that the environmental movement needs to be capable of reasoned thought. My feeling is that it is reasoned thought that is being exercised right now so that we are absolutely sure that the Keystone XL pipeline should be built. TransCanada does not seem to be exercising that same level of reasoned thought. Maybe businesses can’t think.

Google Absurdum

Google is absurd. Just consider the name. It sounds like a contraction of “goose noodle.”

Seriously, though, Google has succeeded in becoming the predominant search engine for the internet, a service that 20 years ago nobody knew we needed. And in doing so, it is sowing the seeds of its own demise.

googledood

A Google Doodle.

Leaving aside my concerns about Google as a multinational corporation (a valid concern shared by others), I want to examine instead the workings of its flagship product: Google Search.

I use Google as a search engine almost daily, for both work and personal reasons. I don’t claim any knowledge of the algorithms that go into the search function. I don’t even know what an algorithm is. But with my searches, I can locate some pretty obscure stuff, teasing out the strands of the World Wide Web to find what I’m looking for. I am, as they say, a power user.

Google has been there for me, and for that I’m grateful.  But I can see some cracks in the armor.  If  things continue the way they are going, Google’s search effectiveness as I have come to know it will eventually approach zero. Here’s why.

Google’s rise to prominence came from the way it provides the result you are most likely looking for within the first ten results, what the company’s developers call PageRank. This likelihood is based on many factors. One of those factors is the frequency with which a particular web page or website is searched for, and that’s what concerns me.

Google now includes a feature where, the moment you begin typing in their query box, suggestions pop up of what you might be searching for. They call this autocomplete, and it is designed as “a reflection of the search activity of all web users and the content of web pages indexed by Google” according to the Help page on Google.

This means that the words that pop up in the box are there because that is what people are using Google to search for. Again, according to Google, “all of the predicted queries that are shown in the drop-down list have been typed previously by Google users or appear on the web.”

Presumably, this also affects the PageRank. All of this information is being churned inside Google’s processors to provide you with what they think you think you want.

But people don’t know what they want. Consider that the average internet user doesn’t know the difference between the URL address bar in a web browser, and a search engine. When these two very different features of the Web get confused, the effectiveness of searching becomes diluted.

As an experiment, I entered a single letter into the Google search box to see what the autocomplete suggested.  Here are some of the results.

  • Type n, and the first suggestion is Netflix.  The URL for Netflix is http://www.netflix.com.  Why would anyone ever need to search for Netflix?  The URL is so simple, there is no need. It’s not that difficult, people.
  • Type a, and the first suggestion is Amazon.  Just for laughs, I accepted that suggestion, and as I figured, it took me to Amazon.com, not the river in South America.  How hard is it to remember http://www.amazon.com?
  • Type f, and the first suggestion is Facebook (really?? yes!). Type g, and the first one is Google. Why would anyone google Google??

You get the idea. While research is being conducted on how to make the autocomplete more predictive of what users are searching for, there is little to explain why anyone would be using a query box to find a simple, easily-known URL in the first place.

Perhaps many view the search engine as a gateway to the Web. But this way of using the internet tells us something important. If these are the terms that people in fact are using in their searches, it means that, instead of using the Web to find knowledge, meaning, or purpose, they are using Google to find a commercial Web address they can’t be bothered to remember. That doesn’t hold much promise for our future.

It’s possible that Google knows all this already.  The company has diversified far beyond the basic search engine, with over a hundred subsidiaries including Motorola and YouTube, so that even if that engine seizes up one day, they won’t suffer.

I guess that will be the day I search for a new search engine.