Why the workplace, not college, may be the best education | Ladders

Job skills -- how to use new software, piece through data, give presentations, speak in public -- are not what you learn at college. For practical, job-based skills, get a job.
The Future of Work

Why the workplace, not college, may be the best education

Did college prepare you for the workplace? My answer is no. The reality is that the university of the 21st century is really the workplace. And businesses need to take up that mantle, for their own self-interest and the greater good.

The traditional thinking has been that college is a time and place to develop an area of expertise, figure out a career path, and prepare for it. The idea is that those four years are your chance to develop the skills needed so that when you enter the workforce, you’re prepared. That model is outdated.

What’s better about hands-on learning

My experience makes for a perfect example. At Washington University in St. Louis, I majored in architecture. I wanted a career that would have an impact and also lead to something tangible.

In the four years I spent studying architecture, we did lots of sketches and learned about design. But we never built a building. We weren’t involved in the process of building one.

That resonates with a lot of university studies. There’s a great deal of theoretical learning, studying history, and exploring ideas. But if someone were to spend those four years in the job market actually doing the job, they would come out a lot farther along.

Obviously it’s different for doctors and other scientists, as well as some other professions. But for most people, a traditional college education doesn’t give you experience with workplace skills. It’s strange how universities spend so much money on manicured grounds, beautiful dorms and lots of mail sent out to attract applicants. It all seems so divorced from what should be the objective, which is to prepare people to excel in the real world.

This is a big reason that learning on the job is a crucial, growing field. You get a job working for a company, entering at the bottom if necessary. And when possible, you use the company’s online talent development platform to keep learning skills.

These are the real, tangible things you need to know — how to use new software, piece through data, give presentations, speak in public, etc. The platform helps set you up for mentorship and peer learning as well.

Companies are discovering that they need to offer these services in order to attract and retain the best high-potential employees, and to create an agile workforce for the future. (See How competitive is America’s Future Workforce?)

Some people argue that college prepares you socially. That it’s a chance to learn how to deal with other people in a way that you couldn’t in high school, when you were under the dictatorship of your parents. There’s also a common refrain that college helps you mature, become independent, and learn to take care of yourself.

I’m not convinced. The typical age for attending college is 18-22. During those years, you’re naturally going to mature just by virtue of aging. And the lessons you learn from working can teach you a lot. So I remember maturing a lot in college, but would I not have matured had I been out in the real world independent of the university? Perhaps even more so.

The preposterous cost of college

The preposterous cost of college is a huge factor to consider. These days, there’s so much free education available online.

The brick and mortar university system is never going to be scalable. It’s physically not possible. But digital learning can be scaled. It’s available to everyone.

None of this is to say that a university education is totally useless. It broadens your horizons intellectually, giving you a chance to learn about things, places, and people that you might never have discovered otherwise.

And college can help you learn how to use your brain in new ways. For example, I ended up choosing not to become an architect. But by studying architecture in college and having access to good professors, I learned about design thinking, which is all about problem solving. It’s applicable in my current work, UX design. And the fact that I’m focused on how to solve problems helped inspire me to create Pathgather.

But having made the decision to create a platform for digital learning at companies, I had to go learn how to do it. So I took online classes. I enrolled in an online program to learn about entrepreneurship. These are things I never learned in college.

Now when I hire, I almost never look at someone’s major in college. I’m much more interested in their skills and experience.

Some employers still use degrees and majors as a crutch, giving starter jobs to recent graduates who have those elements on their resumes. In that sense, then, a college degree can give you a leg up on the competition.

It just doesn’t do much to actually prepare you for the workplace and the real world.