Wanted: A College Degree and the Ability to Lift 50 Pounds

Jason Fertig

The current practice of requiring a bachelor's degrees as a minimum job requirement is as ubiquitous as mustard on a soft pretzel. But while a case can be made for the mustard enhancing the taste of the pretzel, the case is less conducive for the bachelors degree as a job competency predictor. 

George Leef recently tackled this notion of “college-level” jobs at the Pope Center (part 1 and part 2); he questioned whether a degree was necessary for a traffic coordinator position at Lionsgate, a horror film company. I agree with Leef’s assumption that there is very little that college adds to the ability to coordinate horror movie traffic, and I aim to take that argument further in this essay.

The justification for a degree requirement for work is very porous; to support this stance, I followed Leef’s practice of analyzing a job description of an open position. I examined a posting for a management trainee for Quickrete, a cement and concrete products company in Kansas City, Kansas. The listing indicates “a Four-year college degree” as one of the minimum requirements. Does the average college graduate possess the desired knowledge, skills, and abilities described in the listing? My exploration reveals some questionable assumptions.

Consider the following statements from the listing (quoted verbatim):

This position is being trained to perform management duties at the plant level. As training progresses this person will be required to learn all aspects of plant management and will be expected to perform some important duties as assigned.

Seeing how poorly the first sentence is written, I should probably take back my thesis. This level of discourse is perfect for targeting the average college student.

As for the content, this excerpt conveys the idea that only college-educated individuals are capable of successfully completing management training. Given the dubious amount of information retained by the average college student post-graduation, this assumption is refutable.

The Trainee reports to the General Manager and teamwork with company supervisors, peers, and subordinates is a must.

The average student acquires teamwork experience through class projects. Some students participate in sports or clubs, but such activities are not listed in the job requirements. As far as how the average student performs on group projects - ask any faculty member who utilizes a group assignment in class, and you’ll hear stories of free riding, requests to kick out team members instead of managing conflict, submissions of overall poor work, or one person dominating all the work (regardless of whether there was some form of student evaluation built into the assignment). In my experience, unless I hold students’ hands throughout the whole assignment, the average student team project is of lower quality than what the best student could do on his own. So much for synergy!

It is foolish to assume that a bachelor’s degree is effective for signaling a strong ability to work in a team. Certainly some college graduates demonstrate superior team performance on class projects, but it’s incorrect to assume that anyone with a degree has that performance record. The average individual with military experience and no degree is equally or possibly more qualified to succeed in teamwork.

Responsibilities include but are not limited to the operation of each piece of equipment in the plant and its overall function in the manufacturing process. Prepare all reports and how they are used. Maintain an adequate inventory of supplies and finished goods throughout the yearly business cycle. Attend weekly Monday Morning Plant/Sales Meetings, how to supervise any department in the plant and how to conduct all company safety programs.

After hacking through the low-level writing, it is a stretch to argue that an individual needs a college degree to demonstrate the ability to operate machinery, write reports, and attend meetings. In fact, given how many students are cavalier about attending class in the first place, one may argue that a consistent employment record is a better indicator.

The minimum qualifications are a Four-year college degree and some manufacturing related work experience is preferred. Must have a mechanical aptitude capable of communicating with maintenance personnel and be able to build, maintain and lead a teamwork type environment, able to monitor/manage adequate inventory controls with strong analytical problem solving skills. Good communication skills and the ability to work well with customers a must.

According to this statement, the degree is required, but prior manufacturing experience is only preferred. All of the listed competences are more likely acquired through experience than in college.

This is an industrial environment and requires attention to SAFETY, physical dexterity and intermittently required to use hands, arms, legs, feet, body, and trunk to carry, lift/lower, push/pull up to 50 lbs.

Who would have thought that carrying kegs down to the basement would be viewed by future employers as relevant job training? Given that the average student barely lugs his textbook to class, it is quite illogical to assume that only college graduates can lift 50 lbs. 

I am aware that Quikrete requests this physical requirement “in addition to the degree,” rather than expects it accomplished through degree attainment, but nothing listed on the description so far justifies limiting job candidates to “only college graduates” than can lift 50 lbs. 

Must be able to handle the psychological stress of employee supervision, production demands, customer requests, planning and controlling all aspects of plant operations, major equipment breakdowns, and unusual customer demands during the peak season.

College coursework alone is a poor proxy for dealing with the unexpected. The average student in class displays a discomfort with ambiguity – he wants to know everything that is on the test before the test day and he get upsets with a drastic change in the syllabus in the middle of the semester. 

I have firsthand experience with this discomfort. As part of a negotiation course, I offered to renegotiate the syllabus. When I seriously offered replacing all exams with a research paper, several students refused and were ready to drop the course because it would interfere with the way they planned out their semesters.

This open position is not unique in its assumptions; I did not search the job boards until I found a questionable posting. A simple search for entry-level positions that require a bachelors degree on Monster.com produces a list of results that questionably assume that a college degree should be required.

My argument is not that college graduates cannot perform the responsibilities for the positions listed by Quikrete and Lionsgate, or similar positions at other companies. There are lots of fantastic students out there. My issue is with the practice of limiting open positions to individuals with bachelor’s degrees when there are equally qualified candidates with less education. If a company chooses to require a certain subset of college graduates for an open position because the graduates’ assumed knowledge base is a must for performing the job, that practice holds more water than blindly requiring a degree.

Limiting job candidates to those who have completed college degrees erects an entry barrier for “less-educated” individuals with quality work and life experiences, in addition to reinforcing the idea that everyone has to seek a college degree to have a successful career. In turn, this message (along with government and media influences) contributes to pushing millions of people who do not have the desire or ability—or need—for true higher learning through the college system. These pressures create a host of unintended consequences such as excessively lowered classroom standards in order to “maintain a respectful graduation rate” or students overconsuming education in lieu of work experience – the latter of which is more likely to increase employability.

Has the adage “never let school get in the way of a good education” ever seemed so appropriate? 



Image: Day 47: Weights by Keith McDuffee / CC BY 2.0

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