Recently, I was listening to the cd audiobook “The Education of Millionaires” by Michael Ellsburg. It’s a great book for anyone thinking about working in cultural resource management because it lays bare the idea that everyone in the United States needs a college degree. The book also describes the stories of several self-taught success stories, which gave me dozens of ideas about how I could apply their life experiences to my own career.
Archaeologists are among the most educated consultants and professionals in the country. We believe in education and you need a college degree to be a complete archaeologist. However, I do believe it is time for the whole Western World to rethink our philosophy about higher education, especially in the United States.
- Why do we think so many people need a college degree for even the lowest tier jobs?
- Is it financially prudent to tell young people to spend thousands of dollars on a degree that is no guarantee of a secure job?
- Is it okay for professors to pretend like the degree that most students get will prepare them for the job market?
- Is college the only place where intellectual development is possible?
This is a conversation that needs to be had.
College still remains essential for folks in historic preservation and heritage conservation, but the Great Recession taught us that it takes more than a college degree to get and keep a job. There is a wealth of real-world knowledge that is required for anyone that wants to stay out of the employment line, regardless of what industry you’re in. The current economy rewards folks that learn what it takes to land jobs, maneuver through the corporate gridiron, and/or start successful businesses.
This street-smart knowledge is rarely taught in college classrooms. The knowledgeable workers that know this fact of life survive and thrive. The knowledge worker shift is here. In many ways, it’s always been here.
What am I talking about?
Here are some of the workplace realities that reinforce the fact that the knowledge work shift rules the day:
College doesn’t work like it used to– It’s been almost 30 years since the adage “go to school, study hard, get a degree, and you’ll find a ‘good job’ on the other side” has been true. Maybe this worked for previous generations, but there are simply too many folks with college degrees out there for this to still be true. Companies need smart people and college, usually, demonstrates you have above average intelligence. But, there are myriad other ways to show you are smart. In fact, it’s much more impressive to meet individuals that are getting significant success out of life and don’t have a degree.
Even for us in cultural resource management, historic preservation, and heritage conservation, a degree is no guarantee of success. In order to succeed, you will also have to show that you know how to get results.
The knowledgeable few of today know they will need more than just a degree to get and keep a job. They build work ethic and robust professional networks. Today’s knowledge workers are also planning their futures regardless of lay-offs, firings, or economic collapse.
Reciprocity rules– This has always been the way the world works. The easiest path to success is by building a network of relationships with people that are willing to help you out whenever the chips are down. In order to get this reciprocity, you have to give first. Ever heard: “Give and ye shall receive?” Give first and you will get back in return. I don’t know how or why, but it works.
It’s easier than ever to give to others in the Information Age. Today, ‘what you know’ can turn into ‘who you know’, which can help you ‘stay in the know.’ Helping others, especially those in authority positions, is an important means of earning crucial friendships that may end up helping you out in the future. You never know how this will work, so make sure to try and help as many people as you can, especially folks in your career industry.
Even people in authority and leadership positions aren’t successful in every single area of their lives. There is always a way to connect with leaders, even if you don’t think you have anything of value to trade. Knowledge workers know this and use it to their advantage.
The world values results over credentials– A college degree is nice, but it doesn’t prove anything to potential employers other than you are roughly familiar with topics in your degree field, can follow instructions, and have higher than average intelligence. You need to do something impressive to move above the crowd if you want to impress potential employers. It’s best if that extra something can benefit the people you want to work for.
College students and recent grads: have you planned and executed your own historic preservation project? Organized a fundraising program to benefit a charity? Made quality contacts with government agencies or corporations that hire cultural resource managers? Have you published something that would help the cultural resources industry? Built an app that helps improve CRM company productivity? If you haven’t you will have to make a pretty compelling case why a CRM company or government agency should hire you.
Successful knowledge workers have results to back up their credentials. They’ve done stuff that has prepared them for life beyond college, even the folks that want to become professors. Do something that will impress your future employer, today.
Intellectual pursuits aren’t just for college– You can learn without going to school. Not everyone that doesn’t go on to college is a failure. You can have a good, middle-class life without having a college degree. It’s also true that most people that don’t go to college do not have a good, middle class life or fulfilling jobs. Why? Because they just didn’t try hard enough to educate themselves.
What would happen if you just asked for the syllabus and reading list of every class in a given college major; read all the readings; did all the lessons; and compared your work to other people that actually took the class? Wouldn’t that be almost as good as attending a college-level course? Actually, it wouldn’t because you’d be missing the interaction with other students and the professors. But, if you think about it, how much of this interaction rubbed off on you in a manner that changed the course of your career or life? If you’re like me, maybe 10% of it?
Conversely, what would happen if you extensively researched what it would take to execute a given historic preservation project; constructed a detailed historical background of the target area; learned how to network throughout the community to find people interested in your project; built a group of trusted advisers to help you complete it; learned how to fundraise; crowdsourced the entire project; and saved a historic building or neighborhood from annihilation?
Do you think you’d be an asset to a CRM company or government agency after all of that work? How important would abstract theoretical concepts would be for the completion of this goal? What role would college-style theory play?
You think you’d get into and successfully complete a graduate degree program if you had that under your belt? Do you think you’d even need one at that point? You could always hire a qualified pro if you ever needed credentials.
You can learn how to do CRM without going to college if you really wanted to. Sadly, most companies and agencies still wouldn’t hire you for cultural resources work if you didn’t have a college degree. Maybe that’s why our industry is in its current state.
The most successful folks in our industry are the ones that didn’t just stop learning when they left college. I don’t just mean booklearnin’ because reading and researching is what cultural resources is all about. I mean success lies in learning what everyone else in this field doesn’t know or doesn’t want to learn. Intellectualism knows no bounds.
Make mistakes– Our entire education system is designed to teach us that mistakes are wrong. You missed a problem. Your test grade is lowered. You spoke out of turn in class or challenged a professor’s position. You are punished. It’s even worse in the working world. You can be fired immediately if you make a mistake or too many in a row.
The main problem with this perspective is that is stifles creativity and prevents students from taking chances. When you think about it, spending 25% of your short life in school is a much bigger risk. Especially, when there is no guarantee of financial reward.
I do think that grades are a legitimate measurement of how well students have absorbed the lessons, but I think the lessons should do a better job of reflecting real-world situations. Students learn best by doing. Whenever you ‘do’ stuff, you’re liable to make mistakes. It is crucial to learn from every mistake and try not to make the same ones again. Unfortunately, this is rarely taught in modern education.
The most successful people have failed many times. Almost everything I do in my current job is the result of failures I’ve made in the past. The knowledge of what works is best learned first hand by doing what doesn’t work.
After a post like that, you’re probably wondering why I’d go back to school for a PhD. I mean, if I already know the degree isn’t as valuable as they say, why would I go back for more. I have many reasons. Some of them are personal. Some are not. I believe in college. It is a ladder that will build intellect and the ability to think like no other system I know. You will learn if you go to school. You will learn intensively if you go to graduate school. If not, you won’t make it far.
But I also have to acknowledge that college is not necessary for real-world success. You can succeed without it, but, in CRM, it will be much more difficult because our credentials are codified in Federal law. There is a glass ceiling that makes it extremely difficult to make it to the highest levels of employment in the industry. The lack of a grad degree also makes permanent employment tenuous unless you’re one of the few knowledge workers.
Americans are starting to realize the fallacy of a college degree in many industries. For example, you’d be a fool to believe that an MBA or business degree is a guarantee of financial success. Many of the most successful business people started a business instead of wasting money and time on a college degree. Most of them also failed, which taught important lessons. A business degree will help you get an entry-level position. Your skills as a knowledge worker will get you everything else.
For cultural resource managers, I want to stress the importance of learning about all the things you never learn in college. How to network. Business basics. Sales. Leadership skills. None of this is taught to archaeologists, but the most successful among us know a lot about all of these things. Fortunately, it’s never too late to become a knowledge worker.
If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.
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