In 2009 I found myself unemployable after working 25 years for the same company as an executive in entertainment business management. My resume was filled with examples of my ability to manage multiple projects at once. I had launched the company’s Nashville foundation initiative which supported a mentoring program for elementary students from a local title one school, backed literacy efforts for ESL students, promoted school beautification projects and worked as a liaison for terminally ill pediatric patients. I enjoyed the day to day operations of a business while also pursuing my passion for supporting youth. I had even accomplished the personal goal of writing, and publishing a book.
To me, I had so many hard skills. Not to mention soft skills like critical thinking, creative problem solving, and my self-starter “decide and do” personality. But none of these fit into the narrow descriptors of resumes and applications. What was I missing? A college degree. It didn’t matter what type, only that I didn’t have one. But in my mind, I already had a Masters Degree in Follow Through. So while I had measurable skills, without a degree, I was unemployable. A short time later I was sitting in an interview and was asked point blank “What are your deliverables?” Let’s just say the interview ended there. But that’s when it hit me. Do young people even know what a deliverable is? Young Americans are pressured into getting a degree but don’t have resumes with quantifiable results. The irony was that I had extensive business experience with a proven track record, but no degree.I realized that having a degree simply means you’ve passed the initiation test for success. But the real question is, do you have the skills to be successful?
So, after earning six figures in a fulfilling career, I was now working three jobs and managing life as a single mom. Did I ever question my decision not to get a degree? No, because I already knew I didn’t process information in the way that’s required to attend college. I also knew that there were many other people just like me. I owned my first company when I was six years old. The wooden disk given to us to play hopscotch set everyone up for failure because (much like a hockey puck) it never landed in the square. My solution? To sell custom-made bean bags during recess. My stepfather taught me about profit margins, and I thrived with on-the-job training. I was an apprentice learning about business in the first grade. My bean bags, covered in sequin applique, sold for $1.00 each. More importantly, they were a hit. Not only could we play the game, but we could play the game in style.
In later years my personal debate over skills vs. degrees continued to expand. I began questioning the very existence of certain degrees and this remained a topic of discussion among friends, associates, and strangers for years. And let’s not forget the question of “deliverables.” I asked people the same question, a lot, and most people didn’t know how to answer. In response, I developed a passion for causal research of this subject among students, graduates, parents, educators, and employers. High school students often said they felt undirected and under pressure to attend college even if they sensed it wasn’t the right path. They worried about the debt they would soon incur. Secondary school teachers were frustrated with administrators who didn’t support vocational fields in the school or as an alternative education path after graduation.
Many college graduates I spoke with felt duped, having attended college and acquired a degree, only to find themselves unemployable and lacking skills. They’re making minimum wage and those hefty tuition debt payments are now due. I spoke with parents who saved for years to put children through college only to have them return home, unable to secure sustainable employment. And that college degree...many of the college graduates I’ve spoken with don’t even use their degree. They are working in completely unrelated fields and still paying down debt, sometimes in excess of $150,000. This doesn’t even account for the rate of dropout students.
So, what are employers looking for now? Skills. Especially ones that answer the question “How can you make me money and solve my problems?” I’ve heard from countless employers and HR directors about the number of job seekers lacking business acumen and skills. One employer told me they only hire baby boomers, but they’re all reaching retirement age. The college metric worked well for that generation. Tuition was cheap, and so was the cost of living. But college tuition and cost of living have grown exponentially over the years. The salaries of college graduates have not.
We’ve reached a point where it’s critical that we broaden the American narrative around higher education and support skill acquisition through student apprenticeships. We all support teaching entrepreneurship in third world countries, but why haven’t we been teaching this in the US? Why hasn’t the curriculum changed so that high school students are given an opportunity to work in the trades or business? They would then be able to make educated decisions about which path of higher education is the right one for them.
Why haven’t we been willing to openly support a wider variety of professions as a viable educational and career path? Personally, I love having a leak-free roof over my head, skillfully installed water pipes, electricity, a mechanic to keep my van in tip-top shape and let’s not overlook our nail tech or hair stylist. We can’t live without skilled tradespeople! This doesn’t even account for those who own their own businesses. The plumber who repaired my leaking toilet in 20 minutes had quite the smile when he handed me the bill for $460. He was probably headed out for a nice steak dinner with his family that night. In contrast, the college graduate who is now a barista at $10 an hour will probably be dining in.
The most heartbreaking stories are from young adults I meet on the road or at our kiosk on 12th South in Nashville, TN. “Did I do it all wrong? I’m ashamed I have so much college debt and no job.” “I took the bar two years ago and I’ve been unable to secure a job. I have $350,000 in college debt and no idea how I’ll pay this back.” “I paid $116,000 for a degree in Interior Design.” “Here’s my parent’s phone number. Please call them to share Alyn Vaughn’s mission. I would love to be an apprentice and drop out of college.” “I tried to commit suicide because I feel I’m a failure. I dropped out of college, I work at a sandwich shop and I can’t afford to live on my own.”
I tell each and every one “HOLD ON! WE ARE COMIN’ FOR YA!”
We the people have the power to embrace college, vocational school, and apprenticeships as equally esteemed educational paths. The more our society joins this conversation and rallies around our youth, whatever path they choose, the greater our ability to broaden the narrative around higher education.