Title

The Unwritten Rules of Getting Ahead

How lower-wage workers move up.

August 3, 2020
 
 

Michelle Weise, the former chief innovation officer of Strada Education Network and Southern New Hampshire University, has written the most important article on occupational mobility that I suspect you haven’t read.

Her recent Harvard Business Review report, “How Workers Shift from One Industry to Another,” examines how workers in retail, hospitality, food service, transportation and warehousing -- many of whom are suffering terribly during the pandemic -- might pivot to more secure, higher-paying jobs.

Weise mapped the trajectories of workers who made the transition to more stable, higher-wage work. The key was to build on existing skills.

For example, the most upwardly mobile food service workers moved into advertising, business analysis and operations, human resources, marketing, payroll and benefits administration, and public relations. They made this transition by supplementing their existing skills with training in fundraising, events management and relationship building.

The most successful retail workers pivoted into accounting and finance, advertising and public relations, and HR, by adding skills in auditing, compliance, marketing and network and risk analysis. Meanwhile, those in transportation and warehousing shifted to more rewarding jobs through training in HR, logistics and procurement, and marketing.

Why don’t more lower-wage workers follow these examples? A big bottleneck is a lack of reliable information. Right now, it is extraordinarily difficult to know which skills will open doors to a higher-wage occupation and which programs and credentials will deliver on that promise.

There are companies that claim to help job hunters navigate the universe of credential programs. Weise names several: AstrumU, Emsi, FutureFit AI and SkyHiv. And, of course, the Credential Engine, a credential registry, seeks to make the credentials market more transparent.

But with more than 730,000 credentials listed, navigating this morass seems truly overwhelming. Reliable information on actual employment and salary outcomes is sparse.

Apart from a lack of accurate information and guidance, another hurdle is that the institutions that are charged with career selection and development -- two-year and four-year colleges and universities -- aren’t doing as good a job as they should.

Just ask yourself: Do my students have a clear sense of the jobs that a particular major will lead to or the skills and credentials such jobs require? I suspect he answer is an emphatic “no.”

What are the implications of Weise’s analysis for colleges and universities?

1. Higher educational institutions need to conduct their own independent analysis of job market trends, skills gaps and postgraduation salaries and career paths.

Then, institutions need to provide departments and students with timely, actionable information that can guide their planning.

2. Individual departments should monitor the jobs their graduates take and their salaries and use this information to refine their curriculum.

UT Austin’s psychology department surveyed its students and discovered that while relatively few pursue graduate training in psychology, many go into HR, health care and research positions, prompting the department to rethink its course offerings and degree paths.

3. Departments and institutions as a whole should integrate windows into the job market into their curriculum.

Drew C. Appleby, an emeritus psychology professor at IUPUI, told me that he was originally hired, in part, to help majors become more job savvy. One of his strategies was to redesign an existing class titled Orientation to the Psychology Major to help the students understand that they need not go to graduate school to utilize the knowledge and skills they gained from a psych major. Appleby published a book chapter that describes the class and lays out a model of developmental advising and career preparation strategy that involved visiting and utilizing the Career Center, building awareness of the occupations they can prepare for, and identifying, exploring, evaluating and writing down their professional goals, values, interests and plans.

Matt Reed, Inside Higher Ed’s Dean Dad, told me about how Brookdale Community College renamed its Foundations of Health class Introduction to Health Careers. This course not only examines the sociology of American health care, but gives students a sense of the career options from which they can choose.

4. Career Services offices need to work closely with faculty, alumni, practitioners and others to offer skills-focused workshops, boot camps and certificate programs.

These initiatives can give students a leg up in the job market. Participating and completing these programs needs to be noted on a student’s transcript.

In previous articles, Weise has described a faulty link in entry into the workforce: the defective handoff between college graduation and entry into a career. She has shown that first jobs matter enormously. Those college graduates who are underemployed in their first job remain vulnerable to underemployment in the years ahead, a phenomenon particularly true for those in law enforcement, leisure and fitness studies, and consumer and family sciences, and for women even in STEM fields.

So let me add a fifth lesson for colleges and universities: the need to devote far more attention to experiential learning.

Internships, job shadowing and earn-learn opportunities not only provide practical skills, but a foot in the door and firsthand insights into whether a particular career is right for a particular student.

Most students go to college not to define a philosophy of life or acquire cultural literacy or, alas, build their critical thinking skills, but to prepare for a career. Colleges and universities should certainly ensure that students receive a well-rounded education grounded in the liberal arts. But let’s also remember: if we hope to influence the course of our graduates’ lives, we need to do a better job helping them identify a career direction and defining a realistic path forward.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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