About Advertise Archive Contact Search Subscribe
Serving the Loop and Near North neighborhoods of downtown Chicago
Facebook X Vimeo RSS
Howard Tullman
There’s a lot of chatter today about the value of a four-year degree. But as an employer, that achievement still tells me whether an individual has the potential to perform in a work environment.

31-Aug-23 – There’s a major national debate going on about the need and the value of a typical – and increasingly costly – four-year college education. Vocational schools are having a resurgence, online universities from places and states you’ve never heard of are all over the airwaves, and employers focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion are issuing voluminous press releases about how they’re all looking to hire folks without a degree.

Parents are properly confused, kids have no real clue, recent grads don’t know where to turn and, to be perfectly honest, there’s no simple answer that makes sense for everyone. The one obvious truth is that there are no shortcuts to the kind of training and education that anyone needs in order to achieve real career success, regardless of how you define that goal. Even a BA or a BS isn’t a ticket to the ball anymore. Plenty of recent graduates are finding that their “degrees” in made-up majors don’t mean much of anything in today’s job market.

Some of the “life experience” ads for quickie colleges that now litter the cable channels and suggest that you can get your degree done cheaply and in no time at all – typically because of your work history – aren’t really helping anyone. Especially the mid-career unemployed who are searching for a miracle job offer or a painless solution. You can’t compress the time it takes to grow, learn, and mature.

Adobe Stock

One thing is for sure: ultimate career success is not about securing an embossed piece of paper with some fancy script on it.

Success never comes down to credentials in the long run – it’s all about competence and commitment. Smart employers can sense and smell the sweat needed to get there.

Since it’s become harder every year for even the most qualified high school graduates to get into the top 50 U.S. colleges and universities – much to the angst and chagrin of their parents – students have had to search more broadly and consider more alternatives and flavors of education than in the past. There’s no such thing as a “safe” school anymore; guidance counselors have even retired the term. Now you’re supposed to make a list of “foundation” schools that you’re not really excited about, send out a slew of applications, and keep your fingers crossed.

Junior’s no longer a legacy shoo-in for admittance to dad or mom’s alma mater, affirmative action programs are under fire, even the jocks are being looked at more carefully since the Varsity Blues scandals, and millions of families can’t begin to afford the skyrocketing costs of attending Ivy League or Seven Sisters schools. Keep in mind that the top, brand-name schools, which get all the press and glory in the aggregate, admit only the tiniest fraction of all the kids in college. But don’t try explaining that to the people who are trying to keep up with the Joneses and send their kids to Columbia or Colgate.

The media broadly promote the annual breakneck competition to get in these schools and the “exclusive” universities love all the disproportionate coverage they get about how super selective they are and the insanely small percentage of applicants they actually admit. Every year there are stupid feature stories about individual kids racking up millions of scholarships that they won’t use which, of course, screws any number of other kids who needed those same funds and opportunities.

“...while a great school can help open some doors and help build an invaluable lifelong network, what really matters to employers looking for future leaders is doing great at whatever school you attend.”

As someone who has owned or run both vocational schools and traditional colleges, I believe that each type of serious and professional education program out there offers substantial benefits to certain individuals and their families. In part, it’s a critical parental process of helping their kids to prioritize their goals to whatever extent that’s even possible today, and also to honestly help adjust their expectations to reflect today’s realities. In a world where a car mechanic knows more about your car than your doctor may know about your body, and probably earns more per hour, maybe aiming for medical school isn’t the best path forward for your kids.

But, if you’re really talking about the end game – the serious and long-term career prospects – I can tell you as an employer of thousands of grads over the last 50 years that, while a great school can help open some doors and help build an invaluable lifelong network, what really matters to employers looking for future leaders is doing great at whatever school you attend. Even then, it’s not simply a quantitative measure of your grade point; it’s the qualitative skills, attitudes, work ethic, patience, and perseverance that you develop in school that sets you up for success. These are the people that every entrepreneur and new business builder wants to hire.

Every entrepreneur will tell you a few key considerations that they use to sort and select their newest team members.

Adobe Stock

Sharing these ideas with your kids and new employees as well will help them better focus on the essential factors that ultimately will make the biggest difference for them.

• First, the most important life skills are built and formed in the field; they’re not taught in any classroom. They’re forged from experiences of all kinds and thoughtful leaders can readily recognize these abilities. As in successful innovation, the keys to building these skills are iteration and perseverance – you try, you learn a bit and fail often, and then you try again harder. It takes a while to be an overnight success. There is no compression algorithm for time.

• Second, there are just as many highs as lows in the path forward. There may be momentary plateaus, but you’re ultimately always moving either up or down. And you have to absorb the bumps and bruises, take the lessons you learn from the choices and mistakes you’ll make, and apply them going forward. Above all, you’ll need to understand that things don’t get better over time – they’re always tough. What gets better over time is you.

• Third, values are far more important than skills or talents. We take our values in part from our parents – both the choices they’ve made and the behaviors they’ve exhibited – but mainly from two other sources: From our peers, the members of our community whose values we share and whose support and trust we seek. And, even more importantly, from our mentors, teachers, and leaders, whose actions and beliefs we try to adopt and emulate, and whose respect we try to earn and deserve every day, based on our actions. Everyone wants someone to be proud of them.

Bottom line: there are things that no one can really teach, but that everyone must eventually learn.