In praise of credentialism

by John Quiggin on March 1, 2017

That’s the title of my latest piece in Inside Story. The crucial para

The term “credentialism” is used in many different ways, some of them contradictory, but the implication is consistent: too many young people are getting too much formal education, at too high a level. This implication was spelt out recently by Dean Ashenden, who contends that “education has not just grown to meet the expanding needs of the post-industrial economy, but has exploded like an airbag.” The claim that young people are getting too much education, and the supporting critique of credentialism, is pernicious and false.

{ 177 comments }

1

John Barker 03.01.17 at 10:44 am

Great piece, John!

The suffix “-ism” hits my hot button- unless it’s optimism. It denotes the ossification of of an idea that may once have been dynamic.

I tend to look at ideas through the prism (oops!) of life-cycles. There’s a time, perhaps, at the “mature” stage, where codification becomes the norm. After that- particularly when organisations become corporatised in an attempt to revitalise them (eg Trumpism)- codification becomes essential for the masses, but discretionary for the bosses. Luckily, it tends to be contemporaneous with the development of new systems, as you indicate, where the activity hasn’t matured sufficiently to be credential-ivied.

I’m trying to tackle this in a book on “Concepts in Innovation and Change”- first 8 chapters for free download and feview at my website http://www.thepicketline.net/innovation.

Keep up the good work!

2

JK 03.01.17 at 11:26 am

“The stress on formal credentialism – the specific requirement for an educational qualification to be a member of a defined profession – is a phenomenon whose time has passed.”

Not sure about this. cf which I think made a bit of a ripple.

3

Ebenezer Scrooge 03.01.17 at 1:13 pm

I’m in the “yes, but” camp.
First, credentialism may be well-established in primary and secondary teaching, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. There is a significant shortage of secondary STEM teachers, and a fair surplus of 40-year old engineers and military types, many of whom are skilled at dealing with the young. But they lack formal ed training, which can be a significant barrier in many districts.
Second, much advanced education in universities does not go on in classrooms. I got my Ph.D. in chemistry. The first year was classrooms and picking a research advisor. The next 3-5 years were all in the lab: pure apprentice work. When we got out, nobody was interested in our classroom grades.
Third, although I’d be the first to admit that general higher education skills are very useful in the workplace, I’m very skeptical about any classroom teaching of specific job-oriented skills. Apart from accounting, what skills does an MBA acquire in a classroom? Every law firm thinks their rookie lawyers are completely untrained, and the second and third years of law school are a waste. (Indeed, Yale Law School turns this into a point of honor: barely trying to teach law.) Medical training is two years of classroom and interminable time in the hospital wards. Engineering may be the exception.

4

engels 03.01.17 at 1:20 pm

I agree very strongly with the second part on education not being a panacea for inequality.

I don’t think credentialism has to imply ‘too many young people are getting too much formal education, at too high a level’. I see it as pathology of managerialism in hiring practices which sets irrational requirements for candidates for jobs. It doesn’t have to mean formal credentials and is perhaps more typically years of experience in a specific role. (To be a barman you two years experience of bartebding etc). Unpaid internships and gap year/CV-boosting stuff maybe also qualify.

Imo credentialism is a real problem and it’s also a problem that the expansion of higher education (which I agree is a good thing) has gone hand in hand with the tightening grip of a brutally instrumental view of the purposes of education, as a process that socialises nascent wage-labourers for a life of wage labour. So I don’t think it’s too jaded to see the vaunted expansion of ‘educational opportunities’ in the last couple of decades as little more than an arms race for access to an ever-dwindling number of marginally privileged positions within an increasingly exploitative system of production funded by a burgeoning debt burden on workers.

It doesn’t have to be this way! But I fear that equating credentials (i.e. formal or informal qualifications explicitly demanded by employers for a specific economic role) with education (study, reading, learning, the life of the mind, …) may not be conducive to progress here.

5

Frowner 03.01.17 at 1:22 pm

If a lurker may comment: I hate to say this, but I completely disagree. I am a person with quite a lot of education who none the less works in a low-level accounting position, and I am completing an accounting certification.

Things I’ve observed:
1. Accounting for most lower level roles is best learned on the job. None of the formal accounting that I’ve studied has very much to do with the actual work I do. Most of what I do is highly specific to the place I work, and had to be learned bit by bit on the job.

2. I started getting my accounting certificate because although I had “apprenticed” with someone up the ladder and had learned enough to move on, I was informed that without a certification I could never be hired, no matter what experience I had.

3. My accounting certification program requires a long, long list of “information science 101”-style classes which are the most godawful, banal, fraudulent, pro-corporate things I’ve ever seen. “Read this short article about self-driving cars”-level terrible. We often receive actively misleading information. This is in a nationally known program which boasts of its connections to fancy accounting firms.

4. I only got into my current job by a fluke – it’s not classed as a regular accounting gig, so they were willing to hire me based on….my experience of accounting. Experience I’d acquired in my previous not-formally-accounting job by volunteering to learn new stuff.

5. My employer has terrible trouble hiring skilled people, because they require a great deal of certification for entry-level jobs and don’t pay that much. People with accounting certifications, for instance, nearly always start out earning about $25,000 more than my employer pays entry level workers. But instead of hiring people who are trainable and have relevant but unspecific experience, my employer holds out for the credential. As a result, we have a lot of churn.

6. On another note: I’ve spent much of my work life in pink collar jumped-up file clerk occupations. On no occasion did I need college level training for “database management”, using MS Office, etc. That’s not how working with databases goes at the file clerk level. What happens is that you’re hired and then socialized into your employer’s specific use of databases. (Also, the kind of “database management” that you need to do as a file clerk is maybe creating some kind of Filemaker or Access database – I was allowed to do this rather than kicking it over to IT because I was an enterprising young person, but this was not typical of file clerk jobs.)

Most pink collar work is deskilled. You work with databases, but in a very restricted way that they try to make as idiot-proof as possible. You work with MS Office, but doing mostly a short list of predetermined things – even if some of them are obscure, the list itself is short.

I sometimes think that professional class people, because they lack experience of the day to day of pink collar work and “business” education, are a little bit vulnerable to talk of new technologies, etc.

6

ترول 03.01.17 at 1:41 pm

I was brought up short by the discussion around “It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk”.

“Someone seeking a job as a file clerk, for instance, would be well advised to acquire a knowledge of computer programs such as Microsoft Office, and an understanding of database management. This is likely to be done more efficiently in a classroom setting than by osmosis in a busy office.”

It is no doubt true that a recent university graduate is guaranteed to have acquired “a knowledge of computer programs such as Microsoft Office” (not, in general, of database management). Some of them – hopefully not many! – may even have waited until university to acquire this knowledge, through some regrettable failure of their high schools. But spending years at university, and thousands of dollars in tuition fees, to learn this is massive overkill. You could learn to use MS Office in a dedicated course in a week or two – or on your own even faster, depending on your personality. The other 95% or so of the time and money you’ve spent on your university training is going to be irrelevant to your job as file clerk. Even if we grant that it’s OK for the employer to pass the financial burden of training entirely on to job-seekers – which is kind of the crux of the problem here! – how is it reasonable for an employer to discriminate against someone for taking the obvious shortcut and learning all the skills that are going to be relevant to the job without passing through university?

More broadly, there’s no automatic contradiction between jobs now requiring greater skill and employers demanding unnecessary or excessive qualifications. Suppose a job that used to need high school levels of achievement now needs extra skills equivalent to a year’s worth of university-level study. There’s no such thing as a 1-year university degree (rightly), so the easiest solution for employers is to demand a university degree for the post – 2 years of which would be superfluous to their requirements. That requires would-be employees to spend thousands of dollars extra of their own money.

7

Zamfir 03.01.17 at 1:44 pm

When people complain about credentialism, the typical assumption is that many jobs could be learned on the job, just as well or better as in a class. And that’s often true, even for many fairly difficult and prestigious jobs. But the second, implicit, assumption is then that on the job training is free. So people compare the high costs of formal education, and start complaining about credentialism, or the high wages of teachers etc.

The point is of course that good on the job training is expensive. It consumes a lot of time of senior people, and organisations are hesitant to provide too much of it. Higher education grows not because it is the best way to learn jobs, but because there is not enough serious on the job training available.

Doctors are the prime example – they are in short demand and highly paid in most countries, with very different medical systems. Even though many seemingly qualified people want to be doctors. The bottleneck is never the classroom education – it’s the required apprenticeships and assistent-doctor positions.

People who complain about credentialism are really asking that more job markets resemble that for doctors, even though they often use the doctors as the prime example of credentialism gone wrong.

8

DrDick 03.01.17 at 3:21 pm

I am quite sure conservatives hate the idea of a more educated population, since it is harder for them to sell their snake oil. On the other hand, there really are a lot of jobs now that expect, if not actually require, applicants to have some college, but where that is not actually needed for the job.

9

Quite Likely 03.01.17 at 4:37 pm

To me the core of what people are talking about with “credentialism” is the vicious cycle of increased educational requirements for jobs and increasing average levels of education. Having more educational credentials helps people get jobs, so people get more credentials, so the level of credentials a given job asks for rises. Assuming that productivity doesn’t actually rise proportionally with education (which I think is pretty inarguable) it just ends up meaning an ever-increasing amount of time and resources goes to the credential-seeking game without accomplishing much.

There’s a great illustration of the dynamic in Scott Alexander’s parable of the tulips: https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/06/06/against-tulip-subsidies/

10

Anarcissie 03.01.17 at 5:04 pm

It seems to me that the usual complaint about credentialism is not that education is a bad or superfluous thing, but that the credentials presently in use don’t have a lot to do with the work they are supposed to reflect, and are mostly an artefact of the education industry and the class structure of the surrounding society. One or more horror-lite anecdotes upon request.

11

CaptFamous 03.01.17 at 7:06 pm

@Anarcissie – Seconded.

The relative prestige associated with certain degrees from certain schools implies they are a better indicator of capability, but grade inflation and cheating scandals in the Ivy League suggest that rather than being held to a higher standard, students there are often given more leeway to skate by. The degree is treated with reverence, but in effect can often be little more than a gold-embossed acceptance letter.

This is exacerbated by the idea (and often reality) that jobs demand qualifications for applicants that they don’t utilize. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t learn the things your resume says you learned in college if your employer doesn’t actually need you to do the things they say they need you to do once you’re hired.

12

Matt 03.01.17 at 7:53 pm

Compared to people accumulating mountains of student loan debt and struggling to find decent jobs, this is a really petty complaint, but: credentialism also makes higher education worse for students who are interested in more than getting that degree to unlock the game progression to “a good job.”

I attended a SLAC around the turn of the millennium. I picked that school instead of a cheaper state school because I bought into the “life of the mind” campus tour messaging. My professors and fellow students would be personally engaged with interesting questions across many disciplines! It was true of the professors, actually. It was also true in smaller elective courses that nobody attended simply to fill requirements. But in mandatory courses or “easy-looking” electives there were a lot of seatwarmers who’d complain outside of class that history or philosophy or whatever was never going to be useful for a job, so we shouldn’t have to take these boring useless courses. I thought: yes, I too would be happier if you all weren’t attending these classes that just bore and annoy you.

It wasn’t until graduate school that I felt like my fellow students were there primarily due to a thirst for knowledge. It reminds me of the aphorism that a master’s degree is the new bachelor’s degree.

13

David 03.01.17 at 7:57 pm

Much has already been said, but I assume we’re all comfortable with the idea that spending time at an institution and leaving with a piece of paper is not the same as education: it’s increasingly just a measure of social control, since you have to pay a fortune to get the piece of paper which probably over-qualifies you for the job you get. I’ve heard, incidentally, that recruiting consultancies (another parasitic life-form) now have software which automatically scans job applications and rejects all those that don’t have very precise qualifications in the right boxes.
I can’t help thinking of my father who had no qualifications of any kind (he left school at 14 as was normal then) and whose first job after the War was as a wages clerk in a factory. OK, there was no Microsoft Office then, but he was expected to work out wages by hand in pounds, shillings and pence, with the aid of a ready-reckoner. I wonder how many people could do the contemporary equivalent, even with higher educational credentials. And credentials are pointless anyway unless they actually reflect genuine abilities that your education has given you.

14

Omega Centauri 03.01.17 at 7:59 pm

Maybe the purpose of a ceredential is not that it’s owner knows what is needed for the job you are offering, but is evidence of a certain level of displine and intellectual capability. So the odds of hiring someone for whom on-the-job training doesn’t stick, -or who lacks basin self-discipline are greatly reduced by requiring the credential.

15

Collin Street 03.01.17 at 8:09 pm

Specifically on databases: there’s a number of subtleties on proper database design [normal forms] that are pretty much impossible to learn on-the-job because very few people without formal training knows about them.

16

Cian 03.01.17 at 8:39 pm

One more example for the vicious cycle of educational requirements. The organization my wife spent a fair bit of her career working for had a mixture of graduates and non-graduates doing the same roles. The graduates were simply younger – hired when HR mandated (because they could due to the rise in university education) a degree. While the job was pretty skilled, she never noticed any difference in ability.

Another example would be that of clerks, where computerization has reduced the skill level required. File keeping, tracking orders and book keeping without computers is bloody hard.

17

Cian 03.01.17 at 8:42 pm

@Zamfir:
Doctors are the prime example – they are in short demand and highly paid in most countries, with very different medical systems. Even though many seemingly qualified people want to be doctors. The bottleneck is never the classroom education – it’s the required apprenticeships and assistent-doctor positions.

Actually the bottleneck in the US and UK is that the doctors’ guilds keep training numbers down. Other countries (i.e. Germany) don’t allow them to do this, and have plenty of doctors as a result. And doctors pay in the US is anomalous – it’s nothing like that in the rest of the world

18

Cian 03.01.17 at 8:45 pm

Third, although I’d be the first to admit that general higher education skills are very useful in the workplace, I’m very skeptical about any classroom teaching of specific job-oriented skills.

The Engineering profession will not allow you to become a full engineer until you have completed a certain number of years in the workplace.

19

Murc 03.01.17 at 8:52 pm

Count me in with DrDick, Frowner, engels, and the others with their pushback.

In fact, I’ll go one step further: I would say that this: “The term “credentialism” is used in many different ways, some of them contradictory, but the implication is consistent: too many young people are getting too much formal education, at too high a level.” is, if not a strawman, definitely straw-adjacent.

Education is a good thing! People getting more education is a good thing. The term in no way implies what John says it is implying, and I don’t often encounter the argument that we, as a populace, are over educated. This argument is absurd on its face and easily knocked down. John does a great job of knocking it down, which would be excellent work if it were, you know… relevant.

What I encounter far more often with regards to the term “credentialism” is basically thus: people have been sold the idea that educational credentials are the ticket to a good life, a life of economic security where you can have a good job and raise a family and not constantly worry about the wolf at the door. However, while there is real absolute value in the education those credential signal their possessors having, a lot of that value is also relative and has to do with scarcity. The more people who possess those credentials, the less they’re worth in the job market, which is the reason you got them in the first place.

And as a result of that you get employers establishing arbitrary and ever-increasing credential requirements for jobs that absolutely don’t require those credentials, as a way of weeding out the riff-raff. Sure, that position doesn’t require a masters, but if you can advertise it with a masters and still get forty well-qualified applicants, why wouldn’t you do that?

And this masks the underlying problem, which is that, basically, there aren’t enough good jobs to go around to everyone, and we’ve constructed a lot of bullshit hurdles (“Education! Education is the silver bullet!”) to avoid having to deal with that. Education is great. I think post-secondary education should be available publicly free of charge, like primary and secondary education is. But even if the college graduation rate were 100%… well, someone has to flip our burgers and work our cash registers, and right now those jobs aren’t considered respectable and they’re sure as hell not compensated respectably.

I will say this: the argument that young people are getting too much education does hold water if you add a “because” with a good reason after it. What immediately springs to mind is Paul Campos’ ongoing war against law schools; he advises young people not to go to law school because they’ll get “too much education,” but because they’ll assume life-destroying mountains of debt and that the return on that investment won’t be worth it.

20

Cian 03.01.17 at 8:53 pm

I sometimes think that professional class people, because they lack experience of the day to day of pink collar work and “business” education, are a little bit vulnerable to talk of new technologies, etc.

The example of this that drives me crazy is computer programmers. The reality is that most computer programming jobs are not difficult – many of them could be carried out (and sometimes are) by a smart high schooler. Generally when graduates do these jobs – they use nothing that they learnt at college to do them. They’re carried out by business, or English, or (sometimes) science/maths graduates.

Now there are definitely exceptions to this. There are computer programming jobs that are very hard, and for which you do need a Computer Science, or Maths degree, and a lot of technical skill. But these are the exception. The ‘App economy’, and the corporate IT world, largely consist of mediocre programmers – who are astonishingly ignorant of basic Computer Science concepts, but muddle through creating mediocre software.

21

ترول 03.01.17 at 10:30 pm

Just want to add that I very much endorse engels’ comment above:

“I fear that equating credentials (i.e. formal or informal qualifications explicitly demanded by employers for a specific economic role) with education (study, reading, learning, the life of the mind, …) may not be conducive to progress here.”

22

Moz of Yarramulla 03.01.17 at 10:33 pm

From the employer side, though, the choice is often between five candidates who have the BA, and twenty who don’t. Since it’s more likely that the BA candidates will be capable employees, it makes some sense to eliminate the less credentialled immediately (because interviewing people isn’t free any more than on the job training is). I have been part of a hiring process where we got hundreds of applications every time we advertised, and had to grind through them looking for that one unicorn-like candidate who was worth hiring. Immediately binning anyone who didn’t follow the instructions or possess the requisite qualifications was simply essential to save time. As it was we spent probably $20,000 of staff time filtering ~600 applications down to 15 interviewees, then interviewing the 10 who turned up.

23

Moz of Yarramulla 03.01.17 at 10:34 pm

With the “modern careers” like programming, there’s usually a huge gap between people who have the credentials and those who don’t. It’s not so much in the one job they have, it’s their ability to keep working as a programmer through their life. University demonstrates possession of the “how to learn” skill in a way that learning on the job doesn’t. There are more than a few non-graduate programmers who are locked into that one job they got somehow, and they can’t leave. Or they can leave, but they’ll be working as a greeter at a box store if they do.

There is, though, a lot of cross-over with ageism in general and in tech jobs particularly. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are if the employer is willing to hire a recent graduate for less than you can afford to accept. I’m reminded of the many article on open plan offices – too many employers accept lower productivity from cheap staff/overcrowded offices etc because it never occurs to them that paying more might get a better result. Or they can’t get that thought through the internal bureaucrazy. Or worse, it doesn’t survive the next arbitrary “cut staffing costs by 23%” edict.

24

peterv 03.01.17 at 10:35 pm

Related is the Paper Qualifications Syndrome, which was of such great concern to some in the 1980s that the ILO spent money studying it. The PQS was the trend by employers to favour recruits with formal qualifications over those without, even when those without may have had relevant work experience.

One reason employers may favour graduates for low level office jobs is that employers know that technology is no longer static. It is not merely that file clerks need today to know how to run databases, but also that such employees will need an entirely different set of technical office skills in 20 years time. Graduates, having learnt how to learn, are generally better able to cope in this environment than people whose formal education ended at 18.

25

peterv 03.01.17 at 10:42 pm

There is a related phenomenon which the UK academic mathematics community has noted. Increasingly, employers no longer need people with only a first degree in mathematics, because much routine math work can be assigned to machines. But some sectors, eg finance, national security, still need original math to be done, which means they need recruits with PhDs in mathematics. The demand for math PhDs used to be a small percentage of the demand for math graduates. If teachers are excluded from the demand figures, this is likely to be reversed: More PhDs are needed than plain graduates. This phenomenon has important implications for education policy.

26

EB 03.01.17 at 10:48 pm

I’m all for more education, of all sorts. The problem we have now with some types of education is that it’s thin, delivered in the same way all the way from maybe Grade 3 to post-secondary, and is starting to NOT signal anything to potential employers. This is especially true for several post-secondary majors like Communications, Marketing, Family Science, etc. And there are other majors that graduate far more young people than the economy can absorb — Graphic Arts, Education, Hospitality, etc. Yes, it signals that the student had enough self-discipline (and money) to persist, but is this really enough?

27

John Quiggin 03.01.17 at 10:53 pm

Assuming that productivity doesn’t actually rise proportionally with education (which I think is pretty inarguable)

This assumption, or something like it, is repeated in numerous comments, supported either by assertion of anecdote.

There’s ample evidence against it both at the national level (a more educated population is strongly correlated with subsequent economic growth) and at the firm level (higher workforce education is correlated with higher output per worker). Does anyone have any evidence for the claim?

28

Sebastian H 03.02.17 at 12:35 am

John, what figures are you using? Surely there are diminishing returns. I would strongly suspect that the step to near universal high school education shows huge gains. The step to say 1/3 2 year college is probably 2/3 of that gain. The step to 4 year college is probably 2/3 of that again. Past that I would be pretty surprised to find that the step from Masters degrees to PhDs are correlated with increased output per worker nearly as much as the step from high school to college. (Or even college to Masters degrees, which is probably the hardest step to measure).

It doesn’t take 4 years of college to be computer proficient enough for MS Word, or some simple database that a file clerk might use. (Programming the database would be a different issue, but that wouldn’t be the file clerk’s job.)

29

Ebenezer Scrooge 03.02.17 at 12:47 am

CaptFamous@12:
The Ivies is weird. What you say is correct–there is nothing easier than an Ivy degree, once you get in. But most of the students work like dogs, although being caught working is a bit uncouth, except perhaps amongst the premeds, who are despised for that very reason. Of course, there are exceptions.

JohnQuiggen@22:
IANAEconomist. But my understanding is that most of the correlation between productivity and education is at the primary and secondary levels. I know a bit about the Japanese system–their undergraduate education is very weak, but nobody has ever accused the Japanese of a lack of productivity.

30

RJB 03.02.17 at 12:48 am

@Frowner, as another lurker and accounting prof, I’d be interested in hearing more. My link will lead you to contact info.

31

SamChevre 03.02.17 at 1:18 am

John Quiggin @ 22

What evidence I have is anecdotal, and is basically time series and selection effects.

Put it this way: I don’t see any significant difference in the IT people I work with between the 60 year olds, who were really competent secretaries who learned on the job; the 50 year olds, who got a community college degree focusing on punch card management; and the 30 year olds, who frequently have masters degrees in CS. Similarly in my own profession, I do not see the actuaries who had general liberal arts bachelors as substantially less productive than those who have masters in actuarial science.

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John Quiggin 03.02.17 at 1:20 am

@7 Zamfir, I agree and tried to make this point, noting that the cost of on-the-job training has gone up as the amount of useful work that can be done by unskilled trainees has declined.

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John Quiggin 03.02.17 at 1:24 am

Responding to a number of comments, it’s worth observing that in much of the developed world the big growth in college attendance took place in the full-employment decades after WWII, when high-school educated workers could get good well-paid jobs, and when you could quit a job and find a new one the same day. So, it can’t be explained by too many workers chasing too few jobs.

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Omega Centauri 03.02.17 at 2:08 am

Its probably a statistical decision from the employers. Hire a grad and the odds he’s a keeper is ninety percent, hire the gal with the 2 year degree and they drop to 80%, and that smart seeming HS grad, maybe its 70%. The hassle and cost of terminating someone and starting the hiring process all over again is such that it only makes sense to minimize your chance of a hiring mistake.

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Dr. Hilarius 03.02.17 at 5:18 am

I’m all for education whether job or skill related or not. But when I hear the term “credentialism” I think of people obtaining diplomas from credential mills that exist solely to provide a line on a CV. My legal practice brings me into contact with a large state agency whose head obtained a PhD in something like “organizational management” from an online diploma mill. Thereafter his underlings had to refer to him as “Dr. Bureaucrat” or risk their employment. A group of state troopers did something similar to qualify for education-based pay raises. Too bad for them this particular diploma mill was too blatant about making payment the sole criterion for a degree.

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Collin Street 03.02.17 at 11:17 am

I read once about an integer overflow bug in PHP that had a deployed patch that worked by seeing if the value stored in the variable was larger than the variable could hold.

I don’t think it was deployed for very long, but even so it’s a terrifying thing to contemplate. “Any high-school kid can program” is true only because the standards we expect of programmers are grotesquely low.

37

Bill Camarda 03.02.17 at 1:23 pm

This isn’t strictly “credentialism” as defined here, but the argument I often hear contains a significant element of “All those kids studying poetry and philosophy and racking up loans (and/or public subsidies) to do it. They’re earning credentials that will be worse than useless to them (and us) because of the opportunity costs and debts involved.”

I disagree with that argument pretty vigorously. But it does link to the claim that credentialed higher education is mismatched to the needs of the workplace and hence B.A. level credentials in and of themselves are becoming far less meaningful — that if the market is respecting them less, the market would be telling the truth.

FWIW Based on my experience writing multiple books about Microsoft Office, I agree with frowner (5) and ترول (6) that the types of office productivity work most commonly such tools don’t require anything like a college degree. Those folks aren’t designing high-performance databases or generally even building highly formatted or referenced documents.

Granted, if you’re a manager who needs to start doing something like data analysis with Excel, it’s different, largely because of all the related concepts you’d want to have that wouldn’t arise “sitting next to Sally” (unless she’s a data scientist!) But now we’re not talking about “file clerks” (or the modern equivalent) anymore.

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Sebastian H 03.02.17 at 5:42 pm

I’m not sure you’re getting at the serious complaints about credentialism.

Back when I had an HR/employment law focus, I would constantly see people who had been doing a job for years or decades, had great reviews, but were trapped at their current jobs because they were not unhire-able without an advanced degree. I’d see it on the HR side (someone, usually an engineering lead or scientist would want to hire someone for a mid-level technical job–say lab animal care or supply sourcing–and the HR dept wanted to stick to “the spec” which always included unnecessary degrees. I’d see it on the employee side with an often black or Hispanic male in his late 40s to early 50s asking if he was being discriminated against because he’d done the job for 20 years but wasn’t even getting call backs. (Answer, probably yes, but good luck proving it when the company can just say “we require a degree”).

I’m also really resistant to the idea that 4 years of college is necessary/helpful to file clerking type jobs. Yes computer skills are necessary that weren’t before, but that is testable, and nowadays usually picked up in high school or earlier. A lot of this seems traceable to the rise of the HR department. They are always in full cover your ass mode, and this is one of the ways.

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Sebastian H 03.02.17 at 5:44 pm

Hmmmm, extra negative in the not unhireable…

40

EB 03.02.17 at 5:57 pm

The “get a degree and get a pay bump” phenomenon is huge in Education (in the US at least). There is even research documenting NO additional effectiveness for holders of MEd. degrees. In this instance, I think the MEd degree is simply an easy way for employers to limit the number of teachers who are eligible for certain raises.

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Cian 03.02.17 at 5:59 pm

John Quiggin: There’s ample evidence against it both at the national level (a more educated population is strongly correlated with subsequent economic growth) and at the firm level (higher workforce education is correlated with higher output per worker). Does anyone have any evidence for the claim?

Alison Wolff argued for this claim 15 years ago. She argued that the relationship between formal higher education and economic growth was not there, and when I investigated this at the time this seemed to hold. Certainly it would be hard to argue that the expansion of British universities has had any effect on growth, while Switzerland and Japan for many years had a very low rate of college education (but excellent apprenticeships) compared to other countries, but high growth rates. Similarly in the US you’ve seen considerable growth in post-high school education, while productivity is slowing.

If you look at a lot of the claims for education, much of it turns out to be myth. For example – we constantly hear that there is a shortage of skilled workers, and we need more STEM graduates. But if you look at the data there’s no evidence for this. In fact you could make a good case that we produce too many if you really wanted to.

A separate argument, that is often brought in to bolster the case for expanded higher education, is that there are social benefits. Perhaps – but this is not what people are generally doing. They are taking hospitality, or business, degrees. If they study the liberal arts it’s as part of a required course (which they resent paying for), taught poorly by an adjunct in a huge class. I’m very skeptical that this kind of education will improve society, or democracy, or whatever it is people hope for here. Sure some people get those types of education, but that’s very much at the elite level, which is not where expansion is taking place.

42

Cian 03.02.17 at 6:16 pm

Moz of Yarramulla:
With the “modern careers” like programming, there’s usually a huge gap between people who have the credentials and those who don’t.

As someone who has worked in the industry for 20 years, and has the credentials, I see little evidence for this. Some of the best programmers I’ve encountered have been self-educated. Some of the worst programmers had PhDs in Computer Science. I have found that the average programmers has little interest in their subject, never read a book (or blog post) on the subject unless they have to, and are not even aware of how bad they are at their craft.

Somebody else mentioned how hard it is to design databases effectively. I’m not sure I’d agree with that, but certainly most Computer Science graduates I come into contact with cannot do it. They make really bad, really basic, errors. Normalization? What’s that. The ones who do know what they’re doing, know because they were taught on the job (the way I was). The guy who taught me how to design databases didn’t even have a degree (if you have a logical mind, it’s really not that hard – I imagine a lot of clerks from yester-year would be good at it).

I’m not devaluing Computer Science education – I think it’s very difficult to be a highly skilled computer programmers without one. But the vast majority of computer programmers are not highly skilled, and don’t really need to be. Your average programmer is closer to a mechanic, than an engineer.

One final point on programming – most of the skill in programming is practical. It’s knowing how to look for and find bugs. It’s the experience to know that if you do X bad things (or sometimes good things) will result. These are skills that you learn doing the job, and are almost impossible to teach in college.

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William Berry 03.02.17 at 7:17 pm

@Moz: You can get a jump on the process just by throwing half the applications in the trash bin right off the bat. After all, you don’t want to hire people who are not lucky!

[h/t to Mr. Gervais]

44

dilbert dogbert 03.02.17 at 7:47 pm

I’m with 35. Vetting is what we want. From the wiki:
investigate (someone) thoroughly, especially in order to ensure that they are suitable for a job requiring secrecy, loyalty, or trustworthiness.
“each applicant will be vetted by police”
Our system failed with our “So Called”. Time to change our political vetting system.

45

Sonny Jim 03.02.17 at 9:10 pm

Another long-time lurker (hi, Frowner!) checking in here to offer a slightly different perspective. I’d like to push back a little in three areas.

Firstly, the assertion that the replacement of nursing school + on the job training by a BN in the ’80s and early ’90s neatly tracks an upskilling in nursing work brought about by the delegation of manual work to nurses’ aides. My mother has spent most of her working life as an operating theatre (OT) nurse in New Zealand. Now, I realise this is anecdotal, but I remember her intense frustration trying to work with the first polytechnic trained nurses coming through the system in the late ’80s and early ’90s. These nurses had no idea what to do in an actual hospital setting, she would complain. It took 2 years or so (significantly, about the same amount of time as the previous nursing school certification process would take) before they were anything more than a liability in the operating theatre. All the BN had done was insert an extra 3 years and an added set of financial hurdles before the real work of learning to be a nurse (through practice and observation) could start taking place. The only real beneficiary here is the polytechnic offering the degree and taking student and government money in order to issue that credential. I should point out that my mother is in no way an anti-intellectual person — she would later go to university herself and complete a BA in English and Italian — but this was her lived experience. And nurses’ aides were by no means an innovation of these years either.

Secondly, the article doesn’t seem to register what’s happening in actual university classrooms under the pressure of a credentialing ideology. “Employability” policies now encourage academics even in pure humanities disciplines to introduce quasi-corporate assignments and practices into course assessment. So English degrees (to pick an example) will now include transactional forms of writing like reports and group work that are supposed to simulate the work graduates will be doing in corporate settings. Much of this work is, I believe, deeply misguided and a product of total pedagogical confusion and indeed it tends to be cordially hated by students, who find it condescending and pointless and who might well object that they signed up for university to find a respite from capitalist realism, not to be subjected to yet another instantiation of it.

Thirdly (as engels remarks above), where’s the student debt angle here? Let’s not forget that, in the corporate university, not only are degrees and the students who pursue them converted into commodities, but the students’ debt load then becomes another form of tradable good. There are levels of exploitation and rent seeking here that the article fails to acknowledge or touch on.

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Trader Joe 03.02.17 at 10:23 pm

Speaking as a hirer – I agree with a mix of the comments made both in the paper and in comments.

My company hires dozens of interns every year, all from top colleges and all with top credentials. In my experience, the sorting factor normally has to do more with the individuals willingness to work hard, take direction and be conscientious in all that they do whether it is getting sandwiches from the deli downstairs or contributing to a major project.

The credentials themselves usually contribute more to them having a vocabulary and an understanding of what we are trying to accomplish than any first-hand experience with the task at hand.

Someone up-thread mentioned an accounting background – I’d agree that little of what one learns in an accounting class applies in day-to-day application. But if I hand over a stack of annual reports and say calculate the recievables/payables ratio for all of these companies over all years presented and put them in an excel table sorted best to worst – based on rolling 3 year averages I expect the typical accounting major would know what I’m talking about and could probably get it done with about 10 clarifying questions and on average a history major would need far more clarifying questions to get to the same point. Without question, I could teach the history major or even I high schooler what they need to do if they were any sort of student at all….but since there will be 100s of things to train either of them on every one that can be saved the better.

The fact is hiring is never an “all else equal” proposition between any two or even 10 candidates – every hire is a trade-off. The credentials are just one sort in the process that hopefully helps. Someone else above mentioned batting average or percentage of success – that’s certainly part of it. Sorting, improving the odds….then still its some amount of intuition, learned (or unlearned) biases and luck whether the hire winds up being everything hoped for.

47

T 03.02.17 at 11:04 pm

Certainly credentialism is wrapped up with both signaling and socialization. A very interesting study, the results of which were reproduced in the NYT as a searchable database, show what institutions and what fields are valuable in moving folks from the lower quartiles of the income distribution to the top. (It also shows the incredible family income disparities at US private universities and colleges.) Seems a lot of strong but less pretentious public institutions are successful.. As for fields, engineering unsurprisingly leads the list.
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/18/upshot/some-colleges-have-more-students-from-the-top-1-percent-than-the-bottom-60.html

The signaling component in law, for example, is insane. Some kid does very well on their SATs as a junior in high school at age 16, gets into an Ivy where they study English and where half the student body graduates with honors, proceeds to an Ivy law school where they leave untrained to write a brief, and gets a job at a white shoe firm that has to train them for 2 years to actually practice law.

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Gabriel 03.03.17 at 12:05 am

Indeed, my experience tracks with SJ’s. University is, in most cases, a poor place for vocational training, and the increased stress placed on degrees (first Bachelors, then MBA/etc) means that the University’s ability to do what it’s occasionally good at – liberal educations and teaching critical thinking skills – is increasingly eroded, all while student debt becomes a bigger and bigger problem. The Modern University benefits a lot of people, but students are at the very bottom of that list.

49

LFC 03.03.17 at 3:32 am

@T
The signaling component in law, for example, is insane. Some kid does very well on their SATs as a junior in high school at age 16, gets into an Ivy where they study English and where half the student body graduates with honors, proceeds to an Ivy law school where they leave untrained to write a brief, and gets a job at a white shoe firm that has to train them for 2 years to actually practice law.

Of course, simply graduating with honors from an Ivy as an undergrad is not enough to get you into an Ivy law school or other elite law school. I’m very well acquainted with someone who, quite a long time ago, graduated w honors from an Ivy League univ. but had no chance of going to an elite law school b.c his undergrad grades were rather patchy and LSAT score unremarkable.

The notion that some kid who does well on his SATs at age 16 or 17 or whatever is then on some kind of preordained track to the white shoe law firm — all while being unable to write a brief — is rather ludicrous. (Among the *many* things wrong w this scenario is that most law schools actually *do* teach brief-writing, or such at least is my impression.)

Of course there is signaling. But you make the whole thing sound more mechanical and absurd than I think it is.

50

Joseph Brenner 03.03.17 at 5:40 am

“In reality, though, the newer professional occupations associated with the information economy, such as programmers, systems analysts and social media experts, have no such formal structure.”

Okay, I take exception to a number of things you’re saying here. I’ll take the side against what you’re calling “credentialism”.

I work as a computer programmer. I have multiple technical degrees, but none specificially in programming. I’ve had some formal training in programming (maybe 3-4 classes), but not that much. So, to a large extent, I’m a self-taught and/or learned-on-the-job programmer: a lot of us are.

There’s an academic discipline called “Computer Science” which likes to think it owns this field– they’ve decided that certain things are Fundamental, like say searching and sorting algorithms. They behave like this is the F=ma of the field, something that everyone must know to be competent, but why that’s so is difficult to grasp. CS researchers did indeed do some solid work in this area, but the things that they learned are embodied in standard libraries, and someone working in the field pretty much just uses the libraries. Most of us have only a vague knowledge of the issues involved, and are happy to leave it that way: we feel like we could learn it if we needed it (and probably we could), but it’s an odd specialty, not something Fundamental.

“Computer Science” itself seems like a very odd field to me: it’s dominated by mathematicians who don’t do any science (e.g. no one conducts research to see if a new language has any actual benefit out in the field), and they don’t do all that much with computers. Philip Greenspun once complained that the killer-app of Computer Science was apparently Microsoft Word.

Google was founded by two guys from Stanford’s Computer Science Dept, and since Google is riding high, there’s now a fetish for asking what I would call Computer Science trivia questions on job interviews (note that Microsoft and Apple were founded by hobbyist dropouts). There’s now a small sub-industry similar to the SAT-prep racket that help you cram this material in order to make it through job interviews. There’s an argument that these interviewing processes are essentially affinity tests in disguise: the question they’re designed to answer is “Are you like me?”.

The point that I’m making here is that CS-geeks like to believe that they’re in touch with the one true doctrine of programming, but there’s no evidence to that effect: you would have to get some social scientists to study the productivity of programmers trained in different ways, and the tradition in the field is to rely on argument from authority and wave your hands a lot.

So I’ve got two points here:

(1) Yes, the field I’m in has been getting by quite well without much in the way of credentialism– but it could easily be that that’s changing.

(2) If you standing up in defense of requiring credentials, my question is *which* credentials, and who gets to decide?

(Ah, I see I’m largely in agreement with Cian@45)

51

Z 03.03.17 at 8:32 am

There is a technical albeit common meaning of credentialism that I don’t see addressed in your defense John: the one used by Randall Collins in The Credential Society, namely a strong reliance in a given society to ascribe social and economical status based on certificate and degrees rather than on current professional performance.

I think a good case can be made that this tendency (very strong in France, less so in the English speaking world) has some severe detrimental effects in the long term. Because the obtention of certificate plays a central role in future social career in a credentialist society in that sense, agents have strong incentives to maximize the reputation of the certificate they can get given their actual potential as students and institutions have strong incentives to work on the reputation of the certificate they deliver rather than on the quality of the instruction provided. Not only is this a sure recipe to the perpetuation of inequalities and to social stratification, it is also detrimental to the quality of instruction in itself: after a couple of generations, both knowledgable agents and powerful institutions are in the business of maximizing the ratio reputation/difficulty so every powerful actors in the system agrees that as long as they can rely on their inherited advantages (former reputation for institutions, favorable familial background for individuals) to maintain everyone else out (crucially), it is a good idea to decrease actual learning.

In other words, just like a society with low capital taxes and low inheritance taxes will be ruled by rich heirs with low actual economic performances, a society with strong influence of educational certificates will be ruled by rich heirs in educative capital with low actual educative performances. Or in even more cruel form, given what my wife and I can transmit to our children and given how a good certificate influences future status in contemporary France, it would actually be in my own self-interest if the school my children go too was not too good. See also, Betsy De Vos.

52

ترول 03.03.17 at 10:03 am

I found a lot of the comments above very interesting and helpful in further clarifying this issue in my mind. Following up on that, let me propose a definition of the apparently oxymoronic notion of “too much education”. A person is getting too much education when they take a course such that:

a) they don’t have any independent desire to learn what’s being taught
b) they don’t need to learn what’s being taught in order to accomplish their goals (for their careers or otherwise)

A person in such a situation is going to be understandably resentful, suffering from both the cost and the opportunity cost of the course, and is usually also going to make life worse for any fellow students who actually do want to be there (as noted by Matt above). Why would anyone be in such a situation? Well, clearly because:

c) in order to make any progress in their career, they DO need a piece of paper certifying that they’ve taken the course and gotten a satisfactory grade in it.

The comments above of Moz of Yarramulla, Sebastian H, EB, Sonny Jim, Dr. Hilarius, and probably a few I’ve missed all seem to confirm an impression I already had: that quite a few people are unfortunate enough to find themselves needing to get “too much education”, in this sense.

For educational institutions, “too much education” is a poisoned chalice. In the short term, many of us benefit from the fees of people in such situations, which (hopefully) serve to cross-subsidise people who actually are benefiting from being there. In the long term, such situations risk creating ill-will towards education in general, and helping erode public support for it.

53

engels 03.03.17 at 11:59 am

Lots of good comments, imo.

54

T 03.03.17 at 1:06 pm

LFC@49
If your friend went to Harvard, he was particularly thick or disinterested. Until a somewhat recent change in rules, 91% of Harvard College students graduated with honors. That “scandal” caused Harvard to cap honors at 60% of the student body. An A is the most common grade. I’ve linked to one of the many articles on this subject.
https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/12/05/with-its-most-common-grade-harvard-earns-disapproval-but-has-company/kCeheDYfuDjSRcM1sVljfK/story.html
The push back of corporate clients against using first year lawyers at top firms is also well known and has been going on for some time. It’s considered paying for training despite the Ivy law degree.
https://dealbook.nytimes.com/2014/10/10/corporations-drive-drop-in-law-firms-use-of-starting-lawyers-study-finds/

55

engels 03.03.17 at 1:18 pm

the sorting factor normally has to do more with the individuals willingness to work hard, take direction and be conscientious in all that they do whether it is getting sandwiches from the deli downstairs or contributing to a major project

Shorter Joe: what we’re looking for is willingness to demean oneself by submitting to arbitrary power

56

Cian 03.03.17 at 2:13 pm

My company hires dozens of interns every year, all from top colleges and all with top credentials. In my experience, the sorting factor normally has to do more with the individuals willingness to work hard, take direction and be conscientious in all that they do whether it is getting sandwiches from the deli downstairs or contributing to a major project.

Nonsense. The sorting factor has to do with class. Mostly you’re selecting people from the upper classes, because that’s who mostly goes to top colleges. And that works for your company because they fit in to the culture.

Someone up-thread mentioned an accounting background – I’d agree that little of what one learns in an accounting class applies in day-to-day application. But if I hand over a stack of annual reports and say calculate the recievables/payables ratio for all of these companies over all years presented and put them in an excel table sorted best to worst – based on rolling 3 year averages I expect the typical accounting major would know what I’m talking about and could probably get it done with about 10 clarifying questions and on average a history major would need far more clarifying questions to get to the same point.

1) None of these things take 4 years to learn.
2) Implicit in this is that your company has no interest in training employees, even though from a social perspective it would be far more efficient for them to learn these skills while working. But companies have little interest in doing this because employees are seen as disposable assets.

57

Cian 03.03.17 at 2:52 pm

I think a large part of my problem with these kinds of discussions is that there is a tendency to talk in abstractions, without every really interrogating what those abstractions are hiding.

So let’s take the building trade. In the building trade everyone goes to college and studies civil engineering for four years… No of course they don’t, that would be ridiculous. While plumbing andn bricklaying are skilled trades with more theory than you’d think, they don’t need anything like the level of theory that a civil engineer needs. To quote Barbie – Math is hard.

So let’s take Computer programming. In Computer programming there is an expectation that everyone goes to college for four years. Which is equally ridiculous. Most programmers, the vast majority, need very little theory. This doesn’t mean everyone can be a programmer, anymore than everyone can be a bricklayer. It just means that the skill required to be a jobbing programmer is not particularly academic. And most programmers are jobbing programmers. They build generic websites, using frameworks and third party applications they don’t really understand. They create routine applications for companies that store, update and retrieve data. It’s a craft, with a set of embodied skills that you pick up through experience and mentoring. Very little of this has anything to do with what is taught in universities – and universities are very bad at teaching these skills (which is not the fault of universities – I will return to this point).

A minority of programmers do innovative, and complex stuff. They build the standard libraries that Joseph relies upon. They build databases such as Oracle. Or Operating Systems. Or the infrastructure at places like Google. Maybe they work on embedded systems for airplanes, or write video game engines like John Carmack. Or they build programming languages that don’t suck (unlike PHP which is terrible, but which was designed by a college graduate). If you want to do these things get a good Computer Science degree, but most programmers don’t do these things.

So Joseph is wrong. Computer Science is essential to the field – take it away and there’s nothing (I am comfortable defending this position). But he’s also right, you can get by just fine without them. Well sort of. Because the flip side of this is that most jobbing programmers are terrible. They’re the equivalent of the guy who comes to your house and builds a bathroom that leaks. Typically they don’t know what they don’t know, which is dangerous. I regularly encounter programmers (and plenty of them have Computer Science degrees) who don’t know how to design a database, or write code that is dangerous/unstable. They don’t know the limits/constraints of the libraries that they use, or what appropriate trade offs are when you’re choosing tools. Stuff is hacked together with self-delusion and hope. Most programmers are incurious to the point that if you read blog posts/books on programming you’re part of the elite. Seriously.

The solution to this would be trade schools. German style, lots of experience working, with just enough theory to understand what you’re doing. Classroom work (but not four years) that focus almost entirely on practical problem solving. An apprentice structure where juniors have a senior programmer (experienced in the arcane arts of debugging and optimization) mentor them. A recognition that training is life long, and the best time to teach a senior programmer about architecture is when they’ve been programming ten years, and have made a ton of mistakes that they’re anxious not to repeat. University is not the place for this. Academics with little practical experience of working on mundane tasks are not the people to teach this.

Of course this is never going to happen in the US because reasons. Programmers (and again I’m talking the majority who are essentially plumbers) are the elite of the ‘working class’ (sorry guys, but when your companies despise you/see you as a cost – you’re the proletariat) because they have skills that modern corporations can’t operate without. So they’re quite well paid. And so this has become a job that for status reasons needs a degree. Because it’s respectable, and middle class – and bourgeois people don’t go to trade school. They don’t do apprenticeships (except of course they do, but in an informal an inefficent way post-college).

I suspect this is true of a lot of other fields too. But programming is the field that I know.

58

Lawrence 03.03.17 at 4:08 pm

Being a file clerk requires database management skills? I have been employed as a file clerk twice, in the 1990’s. It involved shoving papers into file folders and finding said folders for people. Whatever job you are describing isn’t a file clerk. As far as written communication skills are concerned, shouldn’t a high school graduate be capable of that? As it happens, I do have database management skills, SQL and Access. I am a data analyst, although my current job is accounting. And I learned none of it in college. I have a BA in History. Classics, mostly. I find the article at the link completely unpersuasive.

59

divelly 03.03.17 at 4:45 pm

#41
As a restaurateur/hotelier, I found that the Cornell/UNLV grads need the contents of their heads sifted before they were useful as employees.
Two of my best hires,immigrants, an Ecuadorian and a Tibetan, rose to Executive Chef level in a few years,starting as plongeurs.
In my case, as a financial aid student, I worked for min. wage in the U. cafeteria until the U. discovered that it could have the students PAY for the OJT as Hospitality 101!

60

Joseph Brenner 03.03.17 at 6:43 pm

I was just looking through some of my old stuff on credentialism, and I’m reminded of the case of Freeman Dyson: he’s a physicist who did work in a number of areas, for example on the foundations of Quantum Electrodynamics back in 1949, and he did this all without earn8ing a PhD in the field. He’s commented since then that he doesn’t think anyone could do what he did back then: credentialism has a tighter grip now– at least in the field of physics.

I suspect that there’s no society-wide trend one way of the other, but rather it’s a matter of the maturity of a field– in the early days, things are more wide-open, later on professional societies get a grip on things and set themselves up as gate-keepers.

Anyway, if anyone cares, here’s my (excessively long) piece on credentialism, though the emphasis is more on “who do you believe?” rather than “who do we hire?”:

http://www.dailykos.com/stories/2015/11/6/1446086/-Anti-Nuclear-Amory-vs-Atomicrod-and-Other-Fun-with-Credentials

“Credentialism is at best a very quick-and-dirty method of evaluating a speaker, and elsewhere I’ve argued that things like this are useful and absolutely necessary, and yet they should also ‘leak’, we should be on the lookout for cases where exceptions deserve to be made.”

61

LFC 03.03.17 at 7:44 pm

T @54:

LFC@49: If your friend went to Harvard, he was particularly thick or disinterested [you mean “uninterested,” but never mind — LFC]. Until a somewhat recent change in rules, 91% of Harvard College students graduated with honors. That “scandal” caused Harvard to cap honors at 60% of the student body. An A is the most common grade. I’ve linked to one of the many articles on this subject.

Over recent decades, until the change you refer to, the percentage of Harvard College students graduating with honors steadily increased. But note that there were and still are three possible levels of honors, which meant one could graduate “with honors” (i.e., with some level of honors) without getting straight A’s or anything close to straight A’s. Grade inflation existed and increased over time, but it was very possible, at least before the change that capped honors at 60 percent of the class, to graduate with honors with a mixture of grades.

As for the notion that anyone who did not earn a 4.0 had to be thick or “disinterested”: no. One might be neither dumb nor uninterested and still for various reasons get a mixture of grades rather than straight A’s, even in a system with grade inflation. (I also mentioned that the anecdote in question related to “quite a long time ago,” which might be of some relevance.)

I intend this to be my last comment on this topic, btw.

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Joseph Brenner 03.03.17 at 7:48 pm

I think Cian@56 is kind of all-over-the-place with his response, and I would guess there are reasons for this: the “Computer Science” intellectual hegemony is pretty strong, to the point were it’s hard for people to think about a challenge to it…

“So Joseph is wrong. Computer Science is essential to the field – take it away and there’s nothing (I am comfortable defending this position). But he’s also right, you can get by just fine without them. Well sort of. “

The thing is, I’m not claiming that the CompSci folks have never done anything useful, what I am saying is that the idea that they’re the sole gate-keepers of what’s useful is very dubious. (Analogy: “Where would your surgeons be without us mechanical engineers? Clearly you should come to *us* for medical advice!”)

Exploring an alternate reality scenario where computers were developed without much guiding academic expertise (steam punk?) is interesting, but probably beyond the scope of blog commentary. It strikes me as possible, but it could be I’m missing something.

“Because the flip side of this is that most jobbing programmers are terrible. They’re the equivalent of the guy who comes to your house and builds a bathroom that leaks. Typically they don’t know what they don’t know, which is dangerous. I regularly encounter programmers (and plenty of them have Computer Science degrees) who don’t know how to design a database, or write code that is dangerous/unstable.”

Sure, definitely. Fundamentally none of us know what we’re doing, because we don’t have any solid way of knowing what we’re doing, because the “Scientists” in this field aren’t interested in doing any science to find out, they just assert that they know already, and you’re supposed to trust them.

We try stuff, we fall in love with what we know, we sneer at what we don’t know, we wave our hands a lot and shout at each other, sometimes we trust experts, sometimes we dismiss them as unrealistic, sometimes we chase after marketing hype, sometimes we sneer at it with knowing cynicism.

Yes, PHP is a botched job– and yet, wikipedia. So what do we really know?

And against PHP, I give you Pascal, which was once the Latest Thing that was going to save us all– but it was an attempt at creating an idealized, isolated world of perfection, where even any form of I/O required a non-standard extension.

63

Trader Joe 03.03.17 at 9:05 pm

@55 Cian

“Nonsense. The sorting factor has to do with class. Mostly you’re selecting people from the upper classes, because that’s who mostly goes to top colleges. And that works for your company because they fit in to the culture.”

Clearly you think you know it all, so its probably not worth the effort to respond, but I think you know little of which you speak. Of the 8 specific interns that I had occassion to work with directly (such that I know their background) I’d say at most 2 of them would qualify as “upper class” in any common sense of the word. I said top colleges from which you inferred Ivy league – that’s also wrong. Among the 8 were Universities of Michigan and Virginia, Auburn and Virginia Tech. All state schools.

A few demographics. 3 women, 5 men. 5 white, 1 latino, 2 african american. All but 1 will leave with debt. 4 worked jobs while at school. One of the guys, his Dad farms chickens and his Mom’s a nurse. He was the best of the lot in my review – he showed up early, stayed late, asked good questions. Credential wise, he was pretty much the same on paper as the other 7….in action (in my opinion) he’s most likely to succeed, though I’d say 6 of the 8 will probably do quite well.

I also take exception to your definition of ‘not training.’ I’d say we do nothing but training for about the first full year (depends on the person and role). Some of that is formalized ‘classroom setting’ training, some of it is fully on the job. The task I described is work I’d give an intern – because, as you say, it doesn’t take 4 years to learn how to do division. What does take 4 years to learn is how to go about making an investment decision with the answers – that’s what we hire people to do. I’m sure I could train a philosophy major or a programmer too…but then I’d more likely than not also have to teach them to read a balance sheet, understand accounting terms, calculate present values etc….all the things I can safely assume a business school grad knows (just as the average b-school grad wouldn’t know where to begin with even the most basic programming or data base construction).

I’d encourage you to lose some of your biases, the belittle the knowledge you actually do have.

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T 03.03.17 at 9:16 pm

LCF@49 & Joseph@550 & JQ

LCF–My response may have been a bit strong. However, certain fields and professions tend to be more susceptible to signaling through credentialism than others. Law certainly is one. Just take a look at the SC. Or top ranked law schools for that matter. The judges and faculty are typically from 3 or 4 schools.

Joseph — Your point about CS interview-prep courses is interesting and well taken. A not small share of the credentialism is socialization. You gotta act like you belong.

JQ-What I find troubling about many of these comments is that practitioners in technical fields find credentialism run amuck. Those are the fields where I thought credentialism would be most justified. Thoughts?

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John Quiggin 03.04.17 at 1:02 am

JQ-What I find troubling about many of these comments is that practitioners in technical fields find credentialism run amuck. Those are the fields where I thought credentialism would be most justified. Thoughts?

My thought, which I might expand into a post.

Most commenters here assert that credentialism is rampant, and that most jobs done by college graduates could be done with a high school education. And, from what I can see, that’s not because CT commenters are atypical. Most people, including employers and college students share the same view, or at least say they do.

If credentialism is correct, there are huge gains to be made by any employer and high school leaver willing to act on these beliefs. The employer can hire high school leaver and pay them less than the salary for college graduates, but much more than the net salary after deducting four years of tuition costs and lost earnings.

I’m guessing that quite a few commenters have been involved in hiring decisions of one kind or another, and also that quite a few have gone to college. So, has anyone acted on the implications of their beliefs?

If not, what’s the story? It must be a social convention, believed by no one, but so deeply ingrained as to be sustained, and intensified over time, in every country in the developed world, despite radical differences in education systems, career structures, labour market conditions and so on.

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Peter T 03.04.17 at 1:48 am

One thought – much or most of the selection process has now been outsourced to specialist firms, or to in-house HR areas. These people typically have little or no knowledge of the actual attitudes or practical expertise involved, but they can screen CVs for what look like relevant credentials. So that’s what they do.

JQ – “every country in the developed world”? Not Germany or Austria, nor (I think) Japan.

I tried to act on the implications of this belief, with considerable success. HR put a stop to it and went to credentials, with less success. Last I heard, HR still ran the process. Money can be left on the table if it’s the wrong kind.

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engels 03.04.17 at 2:06 am

If credentialism is correct, there are huge gains to be made by any employer and high school leaver willing to act on these beliefs

How would this reasoning apply to sexism, racism, etc?

what’s the story?

Recruiters aren’t perfectly rational and can be influenced by prejudice (no one iirc is saying it’s the same always and everywhere).

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Matt 03.04.17 at 2:09 am

In Computer programming there is an expectation that everyone goes to college for four years. Which is equally ridiculous. Most programmers, the vast majority, need very little theory. This doesn’t mean everyone can be a programmer, anymore than everyone can be a bricklayer. It just means that the skill required to be a jobbing programmer is not particularly academic. And most programmers are jobbing programmers.

Is this expectation referring to large firms? I’ve been writing software to pay the bills for 11 years, but never at large companies. At the beginning of my career I did get an offer from a Fortune 100 company whose core business isn’t software-related. That was actually the easiest interview I’ve gone through in my working life. It was more like an hour’s chat with 5 other people and they didn’t ask any algorithmic, systems design, or brainteaser problems. That job posting did have a credential requirement. But I ended up taking a different offer at a small company.

I haven’t worked anywhere where our job postings mentioned any educational requirements. Nor have I been in an interview, on either side of the table, where academic credentials came up. About the closest I’ve seen to credentialism is challenging candidates with questions that are easier if academic coursework problems are still fresh in your mind (write a function to find the Euclidean distance between two vectors, write a function to search a binary tree, write an efficient function to find the intersection of two lists…) There’s a lot of interview prep advice about handling these whiteboarding challenges precisely because you’re expected to demonstrate on the spot; it’s neither necessary nor sufficient that you did the same thing in a classroom a few years ago and got a credential for it.

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John Quiggin 03.04.17 at 2:45 am

“Not Germany or Austria, nor (I think) Japan.”

Germany does a much better job on technical education than do the English speaking countries. But , there is a steady shift towards classroom vocational education. Compare this (from Wikipedia) with the OP

Although the dual education system is generally considered to be exemplary, an increasing number of young people are taking vocational education and training (VET) courses at training sites and schools rather than in real companies, as for various reasons, companies are becoming less willing to take on apprentices. To counter this, the government considered making it compulsory for firms to take on apprentices. This idea, however, was dropped when the trade associations agreed to a voluntary training pact.

The reasons behind the lack of places on dual education courses include:

* companies which take on apprentices have to follow a large number of regulations
* the training itself is very expensive
* the requirements for several positions have become more complex and many school graduates do not provide a fitting level of education
* for the less complex positions only graduates with a very low level of education are willing to do it, but they are not able to keep up with the course
* companies are often highly specialized and unable to train apprentices in all the required areas

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John Quiggin 03.04.17 at 2:51 am

“How would this reasoning apply to sexism, racism, etc?”

These are pretty good examples of the kinds of deeply ingrained social structures required to sustain discrimination, as I suggested in my comment. So, to restate the implied claim is that credentialism is comparable in its force to racism and sexism. This despite the contrast between the obvious prevalence of racism and sexism and the evidence (for example, this thread) that hardly anyone supports credentialism.

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engels 03.04.17 at 3:42 am

the implied claim is that credentialism is comparable in its force to racism and sexism

Maybe sizeism or ageism would closer comparisons (less pervasive and functional for larger systems of domination but still real and significant to those affected). Or maybe it could be compared to excessive top executive pay, which iirc some accounts trace to a dysfunction of recruitment consultancy profession.

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JimV 03.04.17 at 3:54 am

If the GE grapevine is accurate, Jack Welch questioned the existence of the long-time GE Advanced Engineering Course and other in-house courses, with the straight-from-the-gut reaction: “Why don’t we outsource the training to the universities, and only hire engineers with Masters Degrees?”

At the working level, we knew that experienced technicians and specialists (with 2-year degrees) were worth twice their weight in inexperienced engineers (4 or more year degrees), but in the semi-annual layoffs, the subsection and section managers often started with the lower ranks, assuming an engineer could do anything a technician or specialist could do, but not vice-versa. The best engineer I ever knew was a specialist with a two-year degree (Bob). One day in the midst of a big layoff, our secretary told Bob and me, “Al [our manager’s manager] wants to see you in his office – now.” As we walked side-by-side up the stairs nervously a comforting thought hit me: they might lay me off, but they would never lay off Bob! Sure enough, Al had a job for us.

Two weeks later, while Al was on vacation, his boss had to make some quick decisions to meet Welch’s quota, and laid off Bob.

The rapid rise of the favored few into upper management, where the decisions are made, often means they don’t know or care how things are at the working level. As they used to say, nobody ever got fired for buying from IBM. (I’m not sure that is still the case, but the same kind of thinking goes on.) And don’t get me started on “Human Resources”.

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Sebastian H 03.04.17 at 5:09 am

“If credentialism is correct, there are huge gains to be made by any employer and high school leaver willing to act on these beliefs.”

” So, to restate the implied claim is that credentialism is comparable in its force to racism and sexism. This despite the contrast between the obvious prevalence of racism and sexism and the evidence (for example, this thread) that hardly anyone supports credentialism.”

You know about systemic racism and systemic sexism right? Structures are in place such that even people with low levels of racism or sexism end up continuing sexist practices.

So lets talk about the potential for systemic foolish credentialism.

Principal/Agent Problem and coordination between departments. With the rise of Human Resources as its own department, there are certain thresholds that you won’t be able to get past without clearing it through HR.

HR departments like three things: the ability to trashcan a bunch of applicants, the ability to cover their ass if a hire goes bad, and the ability to avoid litigation.

Credentialism immediately lets them screen out a bunch of applicants. So when justifying their time and effort to upper management they get to say things like “we looked through 300 applicants before showing the hiring team the top 10 possibilities”.

HR also wants to be able to cover its ass if a hire goes bad. One of the key ways that hires go bad is when they don’t know enough to even be worth training. Let’s say that for some reason 15% of people who seem suitable for the job without a credential will wash out for those reasons and that 20% of people who seem suitable for the job with a credential will wash out that way. (Note that I intentionally have made the credentialed people more likely to fail at the job–perhaps it is too boring for them). If they succeed, HR will get very little credit. If they fail, HR has a much higher chance of taking the blame. Humans are highly loss-averse and eager to avoid blame. If a credential can help HR avoid blame even 1/3 of the time when someone gets hired despite not knowing enough to be worth training, that will easily erase the 5% difference in successful hires between the credentialed and non-credentialed so far as HR taking blame goes.

Credentialism also plays into litigation avoidance. If your hire does something horribly dangerous and someone gets hurt, the lack of an available credential can mark against you in court (a self-reinforcing dynamic because as the credential becomes more prevalent the lack of it will hurt more). More subtly credentialism can insulate you against getting sued for your illegal racist or sexist programs because in many fields minorities and women are much less likely to have credentials.

So note that even if credentialed people are actively worse, there may be systemic reasons why companies with HR departments tend toward credentialism.

I suspect that lots of companies initially see that HR is screening out very good candidates, so with weak HR departments they make hires anyway. But eventually something bad happens and loss aversion kicks in even if on balance you have gained much more by avoiding the credential than you lost in the bad incident. HR says “I told you so” and most upper management people aren’t going to see the gains.

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John Quiggin 03.04.17 at 5:50 am

@73 This seems specific to a very particular kind of employment structure. How about small businesses and the self-employed, for example? They have also increased the proportion of graduates, more or less in parallel with large firms.

“More subtly credentialism can insulate you against getting sued for your illegal racist or sexist programs because in many fields minorities and women are much less likely to have credentials. “

This example goes the wrong way. If you are using a qualification that is less likely to be satisfied by women and minorities , and can’t demonstrate its necessity, you are in deep trouble. So, a risk-averse HR department avoids tests like this.

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T 03.04.17 at 6:22 am

LCF — you should be aware that I wrote @64 before I saw (or possibly even before you wrote) @61. I was already backing off a bit before I read your post @61. Unfortunately, the comments policy put my post in moderation for quite a while. This is a real problem with the new system and the lack of flow in conversations is starting to put me off. It might make sense to reconsider the policy. I wonder if this has put off certain blog from posting more often if at all.

The problem I noted is that when all the GPAs are so high and everyone earns honors, it’s hard to distinguish among graduates. Many lawyers at “top” firms in areas that require a scientific background come from public universities. A 4.0 in electrical engineering is a 4.0. In English, History, and Political Science however — common undergraduate degrees for lawyers — the school is taken as a signal. (It’s true both gaining admittance to law school and getting a prestigious job.) Credentialism, signaling and socialization at its finest. In many US service industries, the prestige firms only recruit from the Ivies+. Antonin Scalia famously commented that he only hired clerks from Harvard since they already did the sorting for him. (Hence, the panic of upper middle class Americans to get their kids into these schools. This is especially true now that inter-generational mobility is low. With the recent moves in the stock market and the coming tax cuts for the ultrarich, US pre- and post-tax inequality is going to increase to record levels, smashing the 2007 and 1928 highs. It’s not about getting the best education.)

JQ – If higher education is a signal of conscientiousness that is borne primarily by the student (definitely in short-term lost income and in many places the cost of the education), and the difference in productivity between a conscientiousness and non-conscientiousness employee is less than the college wage premium, wouldn’t you get the observed outcome even if the college graduate is not more skilled? Wouldn’t you also find that the conscientious non-college educated workforce would disproportionately become small business owners or sole proprietors having been shut out of the high-wage labor market?

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Zamfir 03.04.17 at 7:26 am

Peter says: Not Germany or Austria, nor (I think) Japan.

Germany is an odd example against credentialism… It’s notoriously full of Herr Doktors in high positions.

Keep in mind that Germany’s apprenticeship programmes are a form of credentialism. They’re on the job training with an added certificate from a school

I’ve seen such programmes lauded by Americas as an alternative to college or classrooms, but in practice it’s often the opposite – it’s adding classes and credentials to a training trajectory to would otherwise be purely on-the-job in entry level jobs.

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Guy Harris 03.04.17 at 9:11 am

Peter T :

One thought – much or most of the selection process has now been outsourced to specialist firms, or to in-house HR areas. These people typically have little or no knowledge of the actual attitudes or practical expertise involved, but they can screen CVs for what look like relevant credentials. So that’s what they do.

“5 years of experience with Swift required.”

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Sebastian H 03.04.17 at 9:46 am

No you’re exactly wrong about the racism/sexism issue because you’re over trusting “demonstrate its necessity”. Third party credentials almost always end up covering your ass so long as the business can show some reason for believing that the credential could be related to some of the tasks of the job. It is an extremely effective way of masking discrimination from legal scrutiny. Until a few years ago that was my area of practice (in California one of the most employee friendly states). Your idea of how the law is supposed to work is correct. Your idea of how the various legal tests actually get applied is not.

Re small employers I can only offer anecdotal evidence. I worked with and against a broad number of employers–it’s my impression that if you are a skilled worker without a credential you either are a long time legacy (15+ years with a company) or you work for a small company. From a statistical point of view, I wouldn’t be surprised if as the number of college grads went up, the number of college grad employees working at small firms went up purely as a function of population sampling. But I’d suspect in that causal order.

Do you have any clear stats on it?

Re specific type of employment structure I’m not sure what you mean. I mean: any private firm large enough to have an influential HR dept. So most firms over 30 employees or so? Maybe 40? That’s not everyone. But enough to make a huge difference.

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Peter T 03.04.17 at 10:36 am

Class is a driver comparable to racism or sexism – it could well be operating here to narrow opportunities for positional mobility.

Maybe the story revolves around the way the greater preponderance of large corporations, and the emphasis on financial rather than industrial expertise, adds to the distance between the office floor and the executive and lessens the ability of the office floor to shape hiring decisions. But class sharpens the desire of the executive to hire and promote credentialled people.

I don’t know about small business – maybe they just find the pool they draw from has more credentials (as does everyone). The same would apply to the self-employed, but aren’t these increasingly people who would once have been salaried? Makes sense the credentialled would more easily make a go in this sector.

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RichardM 03.04.17 at 11:51 am

This despite the contrast between the obvious prevalence of racism and sexism and the evidence (for example, this thread) that hardly anyone supports credentialism.

This is pretty clearly wrong. Few will say ‘I support credentialism’, but, until the recent rise of the alt-right, few would have said ‘I support racism’.

There’s a purely linguistic thing where supporters of an idea take ownership of a negative label for it. Whether or not that has happened yet changes nothing. The map is not the territory.

Otherwise, if your article did persuade lots of people to change their mind and say ‘credentialism is good’, that would be a self-refutation.

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hix 03.04.17 at 1:41 pm

“Other countries (i.e. Germany) don’t allow them to do this, and have plenty of doctors as a result.”

From which source did you get that? There are mechanisms in Germany that restrict doctors supply. The most obvious one would be the very low number of medical degree spots compared to applicants. Medical degree admission has been the most difficult one as long as i can remember. There are also restrictions on the number of practices that get a licence from the government insurance system – and those are often notoriously below demand.

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Ebenezer Scrooge 03.04.17 at 1:56 pm

T@75:
Actually, law schools have an excellent way of discriminating between Ivy undergrads with 4.0 GPAs. They strongly favor the “tough majors:” physics, math, philosophy, EE. A 3.6 in physics is worth a lot more than a 4.0 semiotics with the same LSAT.

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Cian 03.04.17 at 2:39 pm

Is this expectation [that programmers have 4 year degrees] referring to large firms? I’ve been writing software to pay the bills for 11 years, but never at large companies. At the beginning of my career I did get an offer from a Fortune 100 company whose core business isn’t software-related. That was actually the easiest interview I’ve gone through in my working life. It was more like an hour’s chat with 5 other people and they didn’t ask any algorithmic, systems design, or brainteaser problems. That job posting did have a credential requirement. But I ended up taking a different offer at a small company.

Large and mid size – but that’s where most of the jobs are, despite sillicon valley hype. And it happens at the initial stages – without a degree you’re not going to get anywhere near an interview.

There’s a lot of interview prep advice about handling these whiteboarding challenges precisely because you’re expected to demonstrate on the spot; it’s neither necessary nor sufficient that you did the same thing in a classroom a few years ago and got a credential for it.

Well that’s more related to the separate problem that it’s extremely hard to work out in an interview who can program, and who can’t. I’ve used similar things in the past, though it was more to see can this person think. So here’s a programming problem (usually a real one that I had encountered), how would you solve it. Cutting edge firms are more and more relying on github repositories/open source contributions (which bring their own problems).

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Cian 03.04.17 at 3:23 pm

The thing is, I’m not claiming that the CompSci folks have never done anything useful, what I am saying is that the idea that they’re the sole gate-keepers of what’s useful is very dubious. (Analogy: “Where would your surgeons be without us mechanical engineers? Clearly you should come to *us* for medical advice!”)

That’s a terrible analogy. A better one would be – where would you mechanics be without us mechanical engineers. Should engineers be the gatekeepers for mechanics. No. Would mechanics even have a job without the work of engineers. Clearly not. Could a mechanic do the work of an engineer. Well no.

Exploring an alternate reality scenario where computers were developed without much guiding academic expertise (steam punk?) is interesting, but probably beyond the scope of blog commentary. It strikes me as possible, but it could be I’m missing something.

A few of the things that Computer Science has given us:
+ Databases
+ Pretty much every aspect of Operating Systems
+ Almost every innovation in programming languages
+ Distributed Computing, and the tools to make it possible
+ Real Time Computing
+ Advances in processors
+ Computer Graphics
+ Artificial Intelligence techniques
+ Computer Vision
+ The algorithms and datastructure in the libraries that you rely upon, and the tools to reason about them
+ Networking
+ CPU advances (shared with Electronic Engineering)

Yes some of these advances happened in academia, and some happened in industry, but they were found by people trained in the theory of Computer Science, and who then applied that theory to advance the field. Your ignorance does not define the field.

Your average jobbing programmer doesn’t need to know this stuff, because your average programmer is not doing anything innovative. But that doesn’t mean these things aren’t important. Oracle hires Computer Scientists who work on their database engine because they have the background to understand that stuff, and just as importantly they’ve demonstrated that they have the capacity to deal with complex intellectual problems that most people cannot do. You need very little of that if you’re hired to be a DBA for a fortune 500 company. The skills you do need are not taught well in a university, and probably cannot be taught well in a university.

Sure, definitely [most programmers are bad]. Fundamentally none of us know what we’re doing, because we don’t have any solid way of knowing what we’re doing, because the “Scientists” in this field aren’t interested in doing any science to find out, they just assert that they know already, and you’re supposed to trust them.

The PHP example that someone cited above is the kind of thing that I’m talking about. A competent programmer doesn’t do stuff like that. I’ve recently been working with a database that is not normalized, and where IDs are stored as strings, among other bizarre stuff. Again, competent programmers don’t do that. The inudstry is littered with programmers who don’t understand how to effectively profile code, or how to avoid deadlocks, or to minimize garbage collection/memory usage. Who don’t understand how to write clean maintainable code, basic techniques that help keep code bug free (such as minimizing mutable code). Programmers who rely upon inheritance, rather than composition. Knowing how to write loosely coupled code. I’m talking fundamental best practices here. Stuff where any reflective experienced programmer knows the right way to do something.

Programming is a craft (and one that academic Computer Science has very little influence over, despite your claims). It’s an embodied experiential practice like wood working. You learn by doing, observing your peers, and reflecting on your mistakes.

Yes, PHP is a botched job– and yet, wikipedia. So what do we really know?

That Wikipedia would be a lot easier to build and maintain in a better language. It would also be more performant (as in it would be cheaper to run). Facebook has wasted the best minds of a generation (as well as a small fortune) trying to make PHP suck less.

And against PHP, I give you Pascal, which was once the Latest Thing that was going to save us all– but it was an attempt at creating an idealized, isolated world of perfection, where even any form of I/O required a non-standard extension.

Pascal was developed as a teaching language to teach students structured programming and data structures. That was its entire purpose, and it was extremely successful. So successful that it was turned into a ‘real’ programming language by others. Turbo Pascal and Delphi were both very successful (and very good) programming/development environments based upon Pascal.

Niklaus Wirth, it’s designer, invented modern structured programming. He created procedures, and techniques for structuring data, that we now take for granted. He developed (and popularized) basic ideas in programming techniques (the craft of programming) that are now taken for granted.

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J-D 03.05.17 at 4:26 am

As well as an analysis, Dean Ashenden provide a policy prescription. My problem with his policy prescription is that most of it is too abstract and/or too vague for assessment of its merits (and also too abstract and/or too vague to be implemented without a lot more work).

For example, he thinks governments should ‘discourage front-end education and encourage career and training paths that get as many young people into the workplace as soon as possible’. But discourage how? encourage how? People don’t do things (or refrain from doing things) just because governments announce that they are good ideas (or not good ideas); exhortation may have some effectiveness as a tool for implementing government policy, but it’s strictly limited, so what else is being suggested? He wants ‘an end to the subsidisation of research by teaching’, which has to mean change to funding allocation mechanisms, but what are the new mechanisms he’s recommending? He writes that ‘policy should tackle the conflict of interest that permits the same institution to provide, assess and credential’; does this mean that universities should cease examining and/or cease awarding degrees; or does it mean they should continue doing those things but cease providing tuition; or, if it means neither of those things, what else could it mean?

And so on with the rest of his recommendations.

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Collin Street 03.05.17 at 8:54 am

And against PHP, I give you Pascal, which was once the Latest Thing that was going to save us all– but it was an attempt at creating an idealized, isolated world of perfection, where even any form of I/O required a non-standard extension.

Sure, but that was the done thing at the time: IO frameworks differed pretty significantly between OSs before the spread of C forced everyone to use Unix’s radically-minimalist approach.

… which means, of course, that the problem you mention was actually fixed by computer scientists after being caused by software engineers. But what did the computer scientists ever do for us?

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John Quiggin 03.05.17 at 10:47 am

Obviously, I Am Not A Computer Scientist. But, I did a course or two including Pascal, and remember it being mocked by practical types who said it was a waste of time, and that a year learning COBOL was all you needed. I even remember an article I read headlined something like “I don’t know what the computer language of the future will look like, but it will be called COBOL”.

Ten years later, COBOL programmers were out of work or desperately retraining though some got rehired in the leadup to Y2K.

My takeway: A bright high school graduate in the 1970s would have been far better off doing a Comp Sci degree than learning COBOL by sitting next to Sally. That’s not because employers value pieces of paper, but because understanding is more durable than specific skills,

Fitting ino this somewhere: There was also FORTRAN. Whatever happened to FORTRAN/

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Matthew Heath 03.05.17 at 10:54 am

Fortran (officially no longer shouted) is doing quite a lot of hard work in the middle of a most big numerical calculations and simulations. It’s probably still the best tool for niche it was made for (although painfully unfun to code in)

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T 03.05.17 at 2:11 pm

Ebenezer Scrooge @82
Yale is the most pretentious US law school. In 2008, 35% of all students (all three classes) came from four undergraduate institutions — Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Princeton. Nearly 2/3 came from 24 schools only 4 of which were public – Texas-Austin, UVA, Berkeley, and Michigan. There were more kids from Amherst – student body of 2000, than 3 of those four public schools each which have student bodies in the tens of thousands. My bet is that a grossly disproportionate share of the private college grads attended private secondary school, a tiny segment in the US. Things might have changed a bit since then. In many cases, signaling and socialization began in the crib. I’m sure our UK friends can tell similar Oxbridge stories.

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T 03.05.17 at 2:34 pm

JQ — A a general matter, you must be correct. The wage premium foe a college degree is huge and increasing. I don’t think it’s a mass delusion that produces this result across countries and cultures. I think the actual in increase in knowledge and expertise, especially in technical fields, is enormous despite the inherent weirdness of that specialized knowledge/skills in programing. The easiest way for someone to get from a bottom 20% income family to get into the top 20% is an engineering degree. Given the enormous disadvantages faced by those students it would be folly to argue that credentialism was not he driving force behind their success.

That said, there are a lot of anomalies as expressed in many of the comments. And given the costs of higher education, it has become much less of a leveling force in the US — compare to the GI Bill years which really did get the masses into good colleges and was an impetus for creating good colleges such as the university system in California.

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engels 03.05.17 at 6:05 pm

I don’t know much about programming but I know what I like (Prolog).

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JimV 03.05.17 at 7:29 pm

I have a Fortran compiler on my PC. Fortran still works, and is the best language for scientific and engineering models. Other languages may be better for sorting and filing data, but are much harder to learn than Fortran.

Two Fortran classes and a physics degree got me a job as a computer programmer at GE out of college. Then I took the GE Advanced Engineering course (one 20-hour problem a week for 2-1/2 years, each requiring a computer program to solve) and they told me I was an engineer. For the next 35 years I averaged about one Fortran program a week to solve engineering problems, such as heat transfer in a 50-ton steel casting, or the vibration modes and frequencies of a 52″ turbine vane.

These days there are general-purpose programs to solve engineering models, such as ANSYS, and most engineers don’t do much custom programming. I’ll bet NASA and other places that do leading-edge work still have some custom programming, though.

When I started hearing about languages like C++, I was told it eliminated “spaghetti code” which was considered rife in Fortran, by getting rid of the GOTO statement. I got a book “C++ Complete” from a library, and lo and behold, in chapter ten, I found … the GO TO statement – “not recommended, but in some cases the most efficient way to exit from a complicated procedure, such as nested FOR-loops”.

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JimV 03.05.17 at 7:39 pm

P.S. I forgot to say that for me Fortran is fun, and C++, Lisp, and Scheme are nightmares. I haven’t tried Python or Java yet. Any programming language is gibberish until you know all the commands and understand how they work, but I could write a Poker simulation easily in Fortran without using pointers to pointers to pointers, which still give me headaches in other languages.

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Will Uspal 03.05.17 at 9:57 pm

Having worked with Brownian dynamics and boundary element method codes over the past few years, I can say: Fortran lives to torment grad students and postdocs!

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SusanC 03.05.17 at 9:59 pm

There’s a lot of discussion of programming in this thread. I wonder if that’s because the CT demographic tends heavily towards computer programmers (and so see this as a example that they know about), or because it’s a particularly good example of the academic qualification (a degree in computer science) not being a reliable indicator of competence to do a particular job (e.g. work as a programmer).

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Layman 03.06.17 at 1:04 am

JQ: “My takeway: A bright high school graduate in the 1970s would have been far better off doing a Comp Sci degree than learning COBOL by sitting next to Sally.”

The skill involved in most programming has almost nothing to do with a particular programming language, and people who are good programmers easily pick up new languages as they emerge. I worked with people who were writing COBOL code on IBM mainframes in the late 80s, and then writing C code on UNIX platforms in the late 90s, and then writing multi-platform Java apps in the late 2000s. Personally, I spent 30 years in the business, the last 15 as a CIO, and I was a history major who dropped out after one year of college. If you’re not actually designing chips, a comp sci or engineering degree is irrelevant. Of course, now, no one without an MBA could get the jobs I had.

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SamChevre 03.06.17 at 2:08 am

There might be dead computer languages, but I’m still a fair APL programmer, and still use it occasionally. (And if you think FORTRAN syntax is odd…)

But fundamentally, the problem with hiring someone direct out of high school is credentialism; there’s enough age bias in programming that getting a job at age 40 is nearly impossible, but 20 years of relevant experience and no college degree is a nearly impsosible barrier to get over. So a reasonable hiring manager wouldn’t do it; and a high school student with good judgment wouldn’t risk it.

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Guy Harris 03.06.17 at 6:02 am

JimV:

(Continuing the side discussion of programming languages….)

When I started hearing about languages like C++, I was told it eliminated “spaghetti code” which was considered rife in Fortran, by getting rid of the GOTO statement. I got a book “C++ Complete” from a library, and lo and behold, in chapter ten, I found … the GO TO statement – “not recommended, but in some cases the most efficient way to exit from a complicated procedure, such as nested FOR-loops”.

Whoever told you that was insufficiently knowledgable about FORTRAN and C++.

In 1977, FORTRAN 77 added IF statements that could have more than one statement in an IF clause and also provided ELSE IF and ELSE, obviating the need for a huge number of GO TO statements. C++ came out in 1983, so FORTRAN 77 had already been out for 8 years or so.

And C++, of course, has a “goto” statement, and always did, as you discovered.

So it’s really a case of “Switching to FORTRAN 77 from older FORTRANs lets you get rid of a lot of spaghetti code previously required in FORTRAN, because it supports block IFs, although F77, like C++, still lets you write goto-ridden spaghetti code if that’s your inclination”.

And these days, Fortran is apparently an object-oriented language, along with COBOL.

But, with some effort, you can write structured code in FORTRAN IV, and, without too much effort, you can write unstructured code in just about any programming language that still has gotos, so it’s more a question of “what did you learn about constructing software?” rather than “what language did you learn?”, as Layman points out.

(There are probably ways this can be tied to the broader question of credentials, expertise, etc.)

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infovore 03.06.17 at 8:34 am

I don’t know what the language of the year 2000 will look like, but I know it will be called Fortran.
is a quote attributed to Tony Hoare. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a variant of it mentioning COBOL.

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Peter T 03.06.17 at 10:06 am

I’d be interested to hear about the situations with regard to formal qualifications in China and India. Not so much the degrees, but the mass of certificates that everyone in Australia and the UK is expected to pick up.

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SusanC 03.06.17 at 10:35 am

FORTRAN is a bit of a digression from the original point, but if I recall correctly, Octave (the GNU replacement for Matlab) has a substantial portion of its runtime written in FORTRAN. So if you’re using Octave to e.g. Do the statistical analysis of the results of your experiment, theres a good chance that some of the underlying calculation is still being done by FORTRAN code.

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casmilus 03.06.17 at 12:11 pm

So after 20 years as a mediocre programmer, one of my few consolations is to come on CT and see all the Humanities academics who probably think anyone who can write a “Hello World!” app and solve a quadratic equation is a technical whizzkid.

Now it turns out they don’t. Turns out that *even the CT crowd* are fully briefed on how mediocre people like me are. That’s how bad it is. That’s how useless my pathetic “skill set” has really sunk.

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Cian 03.06.17 at 2:40 pm

John Quiggin: Ten years later, COBOL programmers were out of work or desperately retraining though some got rehired in the leadup to Y2K.

There’s currently a shortage of COBOL programmers, and a number of colleges are churning out trained COBOL programmers. There’s a huge amount of code written in COBOL which isn’t going away. Oddly (and terrifyingly), for all its numerous faults, there are a number of areas where COBOL is still the best option.

My takeway: A bright high school graduate in the 1970s would have been far better off doing a Comp Sci degree than learning COBOL by sitting next to Sally. That’s not because employers value pieces of paper, but because understanding is more durable than specific skills

Perhaps, but most of the programmers who had to retrain in the 80s didn’t have Computer Science degrees. They had degrees in a range of subjects, including the humanities. I’m extremely doubtful that they’d have been in a better position than the hypothetical High School grad.

Of course some practical types would have done Business Information Systems type degrees – where they would have learnt COBOL…

Fitting ino this somewhere: There was also FORTRAN. Whatever happened to FORTRAN

Nothing, it’s still heavily used in engineering and Science. There are other options, but for pure performance it’s hard to beat.

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Cian 03.06.17 at 2:42 pm

I’d be interested to hear about the situations with regard to formal qualifications in China and India. Not so much the degrees, but the mass of certificates that everyone in Australia and the UK is expected to pick up.

In India it’s worse I think.

Those Java/.Net certificates are worse than useless. In my darker moments I used to think they were a way of identifying people who couldn’t program.

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Cian 03.06.17 at 2:45 pm

There might be dead computer languages, but I’m still a fair APL programmer, and still use it occasionally. (And if you think FORTRAN syntax is odd…)

APL is awesome. The guy who created it made an even terser language which is fascinating, but probably unusable by mortals.

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Cian 03.06.17 at 2:49 pm

There’s a lot of discussion of programming in this thread. I wonder if that’s because the CT demographic tends heavily towards computer programmers (and so see this as a example that they know about), or because it’s a particularly good example of the academic qualification (a degree in computer science) not being a reliable indicator of competence to do a particular job (e.g. work as a programmer).

Probably a bit of both. My experience of hiring programmers is that credentials are useless. I’ve seen people with first class honors (or whatever the US equivalent is) who couldn’t program their way out of a paper bag. I’ve note noticed a particularly strong correlation between test taking ability and programming ability.

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Kiwanda 03.06.17 at 7:21 pm

Mostly covered already, but Joseph Brenner:

“Computer Science” itself seems like a very odd field to me: it’s dominated by mathematicians who don’t do any science (e.g. no one conducts research to see if a new language has any actual benefit out in the field), and they don’t do all that much with computers.

It’s true, mathematicians are not scientists, or claim to be. Some computer scientists are mathematicians, in so far as they prove theorems about computation(s), but the vast majority of computer scientists are not.

A little googling reveals a course in a CS&SE Dept on Comparative Studies of Programming Languages you might find of interest.

Google was founded by two guys from Stanford’s Computer Science Dept, and since Google is riding high, there’s now a fetish for asking what I would call Computer Science trivia questions on job interviews (note that Microsoft and Apple were founded by hobbyist dropouts).

The key idea for google was pagerank, invented by those two CS guys, using the idea to use web links to aid search. That idea was introduced, in the “hubs and authorities” model, by a *theoretical* CS guy. The fetish at google, as I understood it, was to make sure that every employee could program, something I’d think you’d appreciate.

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engels 03.06.17 at 7:52 pm

Does anyone here have experience with Brainfuck?

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engels 03.06.17 at 9:43 pm

It’s true, mathematicians are not scientists, or claim to be.

Some of ’em do

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Moz of Yarramulla 03.06.17 at 10:36 pm

Back late… I’m qualified as an electrical engineer with a masters in software engineering because at the time a PhD made one less hireable in more places than it helped, once you stepped outside universities. Credentials, I has them. Also, I am old in programming job terms – over 40! I have wandered aimlessly round the industry for a long time doing contract work and taking holidays. Also, skilled at lying to potential employers about what I’ve been doing lately, because industry have a strong bias against people who don’t have jobs.

In my experience, from companies ranging from “me and the boss in his dining room” to a major bank (did not enjoy!):

* larger companies usually have HR departments who behave as described above
* small companies will more readily hire school leavers than large ones, generally if they know them (as they prefer to hire in general)
* small companies have much greater risks – if their one employee is useless, they are likely to be in trouble.
* but the rewards… if a small company hires a school leaver on $40k and they’re great, that’s a big win. I do have one such friend who was getting $100k when his friends were finishing university. Sadly, Ruby On Rails is not so popular any more and he’s back on $60k while trying to teach himself a useful skill. The company that hired him out of school couldn’t afford to keep him on once their niche shrank.
* many companies in Australia and Aotearoa will not hire a PhD, full stop. They’re useless academics. Master’s Degrees are iffy, but an Engineerings Master’s is less awful than a Computer Science one. I have left the ME off applications at times. Now I mostly leave my age off.
* on that note, age discrimination is *huge* in IT. There’s a huge bias towards the 2-10 years experience (2-5 in many case) cohort, and after 40-ish it becomes noticeably hard to get work, even through contacts (and the bigger the company the less your contacts matter, because there’s more bureaucrazy between “want that one” and “hire that one”).

After having it done to me, I started requiring a programming test involving actual programming when I have control of the hiring process. It weeds out duds like nobody’s business. Sure, they *claim* to have two years experience with ProgrammingTool Version 3, but sit them in front of it and say “here’s an outline. Add this functionality” and a disturbing number head straight for google. I’m talking “add a button and make it add some text when clicked” type problem. It takes me a couple of days to build a set of 10 problems like that and test them on my coworkers. But it very effectively filters out the few applicants that can actually program at all. Especially with “senior software engineers” or whatever, where you’re asking for five years experience, not being able to operate the basic tools is a huge give-away that you’re not going to be any use on the job.

The flip side was the candidates who gave us the “are you kidding” look and flew through all 10 problems in minutes, mostly slowed by a tendency to say “that’s not a good way to solve this problem, I would do … because …”. Which is actually a good sign, IMO. We hired those ones at whatever pay they asked for (they hired me that way). I am frankly amazed that so few companies do that type of practical test. The online tests don’t work because you can’t see them using the tools, all you get is code pasted into the web form. You don’t even know that it’s actually the candidate writing the code. Get them right in front of you, where you can see how they react to getting stuck, being given stupid tasks, what questions they ask, how they solve problems and so on. There’s a whole lot of “what are they like to work with” being examined as well as “can they program at all”.

In one workplace we used to joke about “failing the lift test” because we had so many applicants who just didn’t show up for interviews. The test was “can you operate the lift”, a snide explanation for people who for one reason or another couldn’t get to the interview but were too ashamed to tell us, they just vanished.

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Moz of Yarramulla 03.06.17 at 10:44 pm

Also, most amusing job story: applied for a position in a government department but heard nothing back. Found a different job a couple of weeks later. Several months later I got an email from the gubbint telling me that they wanted to interview me. I had forgotten about the job and had to dig around to find the description.

I had heard stories about that sort of thing, but actually experiencing it was like waking up in an episode of “Yes Minister”. They actually, for real, do that stuff. The mind boggles. WTF, anyone who’s still looking for an IT job after six months is someone you want to investigate very deeply before hiring, because there’s probably a good reason why they’re either still unemployed after six months, or looking for another new job after that long. IT is normally a race to see how fast you can get back to good applicants, we normally ask them when a good time would be and interview them at their earliest convenience (realistically, we’re in the office all day every day and they have to escape their current job when they can).

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Moz of Yarramulla 03.06.17 at 10:53 pm

There’s a lot of discussion of programming in this thread. I wonder if that’s because the CT demographic tends heavily towards computer programmers

It’s probably also because a lot of programmers feel strongly about credentialism, especially since most have probably worked with both “really smart self-taught” bucketheads and “first class honours from a really good university” doofuses. There is not, AFAIK, a good way to distinguish good from bad programmers using only a CV. Let us now vent about how awful the hiring process is.

Also, the field has a lot of “recreational thinkers” in it – people who constantly think about ways to improve processes, especially processes that don’t work very well. Like, say, hiring programmers.

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Priest 03.07.17 at 12:26 am

Friend of mine who is a programmer told me a story about a job interview one of his bosses at a previous job was conducting. The interviewee was presented with a programming problem and responded that he would prefer not to. The interviewer was quick witted enough to respond “Well, Bartleby . . .” They did not hire that person.

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Matt 03.07.17 at 1:54 am

It looks like it’s all programming talk here now so I won’t feel bad about continuing that thread. The first software job I actually took* was with a small Bay Area startup. I had no prior experience in industry and the job posting didn’t ask about education. The posting did challenge applicants to code solutions for a few not-too-hard problems in the style of Project Euler. My solutions got me a phone interview, then an in person interview and a job offer which I took.

For people who already live near a high concentration of software jobs, and/or have an impressive CV, it probably isn’t worth the extra time and effort to solve challenge questions. But that particular screening mechanism let me get my foot in the door without a prior software job, and in exchange the company got someone (me) who was willing to work significantly below market-norm salary.

I work remotely, living in one of the cheapest cost of living areas in the US. With that first job I felt like I was making out like a bandit over my in-office colleagues even if I was taking home 30% less pay. It was still more than double what I was paid as a researcher, and my mortgage was half the cost of their two bedroom apartment. I’m still bad at negotiating “market” pay — when initially hired in my most recent job I asked for what I thought was a cheekily high salary, and they countered with a higher number — but I feel affluent to the point of guilt. The salary someone needs in the SF Bay Area just to afford an unremarkable 3 bedroom house will put you on easy street in any place where real estate remains affordable. For a future economics post perhaps John can take a crack at this mystery: why do software companies continue to cluster around the SF Bay Area, where real estate prices are ridiculously high and local tech workers expect pay high enough to compensate?

*As an adult. After I wrote the above I remembered that I wrote software for medical data extraction and visualization (paid internship at a research hospital, not much money) the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. It paid for a trip to Italy and a computer I could take with me to college.

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Sumana Harihareswara 03.07.17 at 2:37 am

Catherine Corless, amateur historian whose work was crucial to exposing the mass graves at Tuam in Ireland, was at one point denied access to certain records because she did not have a university degree.

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casmilus 03.07.17 at 9:53 am

Story I heard (late 90s) was that if a graduate had a job offer from IBM, and decided not to take it, they sent out a form for you to fill in explaining why. Because it was so baffling that anyone could turn down the opportunity.

In those days there were quite a lot of Humanities grads getting in to graduate training courses to become programmers in C++. The company I joined also assigned 1 guy to learn COBOL, wonder what he’s doing now.

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Collin Street 03.07.17 at 12:07 pm

Turns out that *even the CT crowd* are fully briefed on how mediocre people like me are.

Fair disclosure: I barely managed to graduate from my comp.sci degree and basically never worked in the field. [my institution offered a comp.sci/theory and software-eng/practical take on basically the same material; I did the former.]

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Cian 03.07.17 at 2:25 pm

Another reason that there might be so much discussion of programming, is that programmers see examples of ‘market failure’ every day in hiring decisions (and are often on the wrong side of them).

Consequently they might push back strongly at John Quiggin’s implication that such things are impossible because markets.

I mean seriously, do you know how many top notch programmers there are out there over 40 who struggle to get hired. Or how awful most programmers with 5-10 years experience are. But it’s the latter who get hired.

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Cian 03.07.17 at 2:29 pm

I’ve often wondered what those people with 5-10 years experience who can’t program were doing in those years. I remember one particularly baffling experience where this woman, who had a good CV (which checked out) was hired, and it turned out she couldn’t even do basic Java programming without googling. She had a friend that she kept phoning up for help.

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AcademicLurker 03.07.17 at 3:53 pm

So for those of you who are professional programmers (I’m not, but I write some tools for my research), is it true that many CompSci graduates couldn’t deal with something as simple as the FizzBuzz test?

I’ve heard the legend, but find it hard to believe.

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Anarcissie 03.07.17 at 5:21 pm

In the 1990s, I worked for a small company that gave prospective programmers a simple test of ten programming problems. A few were tricky, most were easy (e.g. FizzBuzz). The CEO of the company later told me about half of the testees got all or most of the test wrong, if they completed it at all. A relative who taught computer science/engineering at about the same time said that about 1/3 of his class absolutely could not learn to write programs even though most of them were highly intelligent in other ways. I concluded from the evidence that computer programming is a peculiar form of thinking for which not everyone possesses the necessary equipment (or whatever you want to call it), just as some people cannot learn new languages after early childhood. I take it CompSci graduates were among both the testees and the students mentioned above. I also encountered an inability to write programs or in fact do almost any other lower-level related task in my work pretty much continually after the mid-1970s until I was finally cycled out of the employment system in 2010 approximately. I think most of these people would have had an educational background in computer-related subjects.

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engels 03.07.17 at 5:28 pm

Maybe I’m being dumb but I’m not totally sure why using google to do your job is a mortal sin

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engels 03.07.17 at 5:43 pm

Another reason that there might be so much discussion of programming, is that programmers see examples of ‘market failure’ every day in hiring decisions (and are often on the wrong side of them).

Maybe programming is an activity where appalling hiring decisions are pretty clearly visible because performance or the lack of it is fairly clear for all to see. Rationalisation and denial are presumably easier in management, finance, academia, etc.

Maybe I’m just cynical but I don’t find ‘there’s no credentialism because meritocracy because efficient labour markets’ a very convincing line of reasoning.

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None 03.07.17 at 6:07 pm

“is it true that many CompSci graduates couldn’t deal with something as simple as the FizzBuzz test?”

Sounds like self important bullshit. It might take a couple of minutes for the interviewee to recover from the shock of being asked an idiotic question – a question which can at worst be answered by aid of a one minute google lookup to refresh oneself since most normal human beings don’t see the need to store every single bit of trivia in their heads, life and work not being a series of interviews – but that’s about it.
I think a more serious problem is that some/many software engineers take a very cavalier attitude to com-sci theory. Case in point would be the commenter above who seems to think that it is unimportant to understand the science behind “searching & sorting” because there are products out there which supply commodity algorithms to do the work. This is incorrect and dangerous. It’s the kind of thinking that leads people to build the unnormalized databases that another commenter testified to encountering – the engineer who did this obviously didn’t understand relational database theory, query optimization, information retrieval, disk storage management etc – which are at bottom all about “searching & sorting” algorithms.

I’ll also add that while software engineers don’t need to be mathematicians they had better be versed in (or be prepared to learn) what Donald Knuth calls “Concrete Mathematics” ie number theory, linear algebra, calculus, real analysis, probability, measure theory, combinatorics etc. Sooner or later you are going to need it.

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Matt 03.07.17 at 7:44 pm

I concluded from the evidence that computer programming is a peculiar form of thinking for which not everyone possesses the necessary equipment (or whatever you want to call it), just as some people cannot learn new languages after early childhood.

I think that this is right. When I was in school I noticed that people in CS who had dual-majored in mathematics, or minored in it, didn’t seem to be better at writing software than those who didn’t. That surprised me because I had thought that writing correct software was basically a kind of specialized mathematics. The thing that did seem to mark consistently competent students was writing software on their own time, not just for homework assignments. I don’t know if that’s because more practice improves skill or more skill makes it more enjoyable to practice. I suspect it’s some of both.

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Moz of Yarramulla 03.07.17 at 8:42 pm

None@124 software engineers don’t need to be mathematicians they had better be versed in (or be prepared to learn) what Donald Knuth calls “Concrete Mathematics”

Very much this. I once had the experience of working with someone who had failed both the programming design courses in their degree – they kept the transcript/certificate framed on their desk to prove it. At one stage I was asked to help with a program they’d written that was a bit slow. Thanks to a lot of linear searches and very bad design choices they’d produced a tree-view that was slower than O(N^30) (I stopped counting). For the non-programmers: to draw an item on the screen they looked it up in a list, by starting at the beginning of the list and checking each item “is this the one I want”. That’s a linear search. But they had a tree, so they needed to know what the parent/owner of the current item was… they did another linear search. Then they needed to know how many children there were. Another linear search. And so on, for a range of other attributes.

The know solution to this, well, ok, some of the many known solutions to this include: smarter searches, keeping the information once you have it if you’ll need it again, … not being a complete idiot. Thinking about that experience makes my head hurt. It’s almost as though the person had actively tried to make the worst possible program.

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Peter T 03.07.17 at 10:34 pm

“computer programming is a peculiar form of thinking for which not everyone possesses the necessary equipment”

I think this applies to most fields. And peculiar forms of thinking are difficult to test for outside of seeing the person do the job. Craft skill is best judged by other (competent) practitioners, but many hiring processes seem to go to great lengths to exclude this kind of input.

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John Quiggin 03.08.17 at 2:23 am

So, there are a lot of computer programmers (and related professionals) commenting here, but as far as I can tell, none without at least some college. I’ll count that as support for the OP.

Just to remind everyone, the OP clearly rejects the idea that you need specific credentials, as opposed to post-school education in general, for most professional jobs.

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John Quiggin 03.08.17 at 2:27 am

Also, since incompetence is ubiquitous in all activities involving humans, any inference from a particular observation of incompetence is invalid.

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Moz of Yarramulla 03.08.17 at 3:01 am

JQ@128: the OP clearly rejects the idea that you need specific credentials, as opposed to post-school education in general, for most professional jobs.

I almost think my anecdote suggests you can go the other way, and say “specific qualifications are not sufficient”. Whether they’re necessary is another question.

To almost argue against myself, I have taught programming to engineers and later experience with programs written by engineers helped convince me that they desperately needed formal training in the field. “some college” does not cut it when you’re writing large and complex software systems.

I don’t know about other fields, but software is very prone to the Peter Principle – people keep extending their program until it exceeds their ability to understand it, at which point they struggle to maintain it. So that program lingers around being maintained by the original author until it is completely replaced by a new program written by someone else. I think that’s actually the definition of a mature piece of software: so complex that the current maintainers struggle to do so. If you find a more able programmer to maintain it they will simple add complexity until they reach their personal limit. You may get extra functionality as a result, or not.

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J-D 03.08.17 at 3:02 am

In the news today (here where I am) are stories about somebody who used somebody else’s documents (I presume including educational credentials) to get employed (under this assumed identity) as a doctor for eleven or twelve years in Sydney hospitals.

The stories I’ve seen and heard don’t shed any light on whether he performed as a doctor to the standard of competence that would be expected from somebody with an actual medical degree. Maybe he did. If so, that might offer some support for an argument that the way doctors are licensed should be changed, and in particular less rigidly coupled to the possession of specific educational credentials. That sort of change might have an indirect effect on educational institutions; but there’s no argument there for making changes directly in educational policy.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that this imposter was not performing at the level of competence of somebody who had an actual medical degree, and yet somehow, for over a decade, his medical and other colleagues failed to catch on. If so, that might support an argument in favour of changing the way hospitals are run; but there’s still no argument there for making changes directly in educational policy (except perhaps a change in curricula to place more emphasis on the skills and attitudes needed to detect imposture).

Likewise, some of the comments above about computer programming might support an argument that hiring practices (at least in that field) need to be changed; and if they were changed, there could be indirect effects on educational institutions; but there’s o argument there for a change in educational policy.

I think I’m probably more prepared than John Quiggin is to entertain arguments that institutional education is systematically over-valued; but even supposing such arguments are correct, what changes in educational policy are they supposed to justify?

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Anarcissie 03.08.17 at 3:49 am

John Quiggin 03.08.17 at 2:23 am @ 128 — The kind of people who are likely to be reading and writing in the comments section of Crooked Timber are likely to have had at least a modest brush with college-level education. Also, after around 1980 it was difficult to get a job in the field without having or being able to simulate a degree that HR departments would accept, regardless of one’s abilities, proven or not.

@129 — although my examples were anecdotal and I can’t document them, I strongly believe they would reflect actual data, if there is any reliable data. On the other hand, I suppose there might be equally high levels of incompetence in many other fields.

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Sebastian H 03.08.17 at 5:12 am

“Just to remind everyone, the OP clearly rejects the idea that you need specific credentials, as opposed to post-school education in general, for most professional jobs.”

Gack, yes but in the real world don’t things tend toward specific credentials as opposed to “post-school education”?

It’s like “a proper well-run Iraq campaign”. If you aren’t likely to get “proper well-run” maybe you have to avoid the campaign.

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Peter T 03.08.17 at 9:34 am

“you need specific credentials, as opposed to post-school education in general, for most professional jobs.”

Not sure what you mean by credentials here. Paper attesting to expertise in some specific domain? Some credentials are that. Others are remarkably non-specific (MBAs? PPE degrees?) but obviously open a lot of doors.

Surely in most professions you need theoretical and practical knowledge, and the latter is always in some specific area. An accountant with no ability to use a spreadsheet is not much use (but Excel is not the same as Lotus), nor an engineer without detailed knowledge of the practical idiosyncrasies of materials (but steel is not stone)….

Software points this up, since there are so many languages, many use-specific. As a manager overseeing IT, I found out the hard way that people may have computer science degrees but be helpless if the problems are outside their specific craft skills.

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engels 03.08.17 at 12:23 pm

“computer programming is a peculiar form of thinking for which not everyone possesses the necessary equipment”

The older I get, the less I feel this is true of anything.

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Layman 03.08.17 at 1:06 pm

JQ: “So, there are a lot of computer programmers (and related professionals) commenting here, but as far as I can tell, none without at least some college. I’ll count that as support for the OP.”

If two semesters as a history major, with a failing GPA, count as ‘credentials’ for a job as a programmer, then ‘credentials’ is meaningless.

137

ترول 03.08.17 at 4:09 pm

Re J-D, #131
> I think I’m probably more prepared than John Quiggin is to entertain arguments that institutional education is systematically over-valued; but even supposing such arguments are correct, what changes in educational policy are they supposed to justify?

One obvious possibility is that such arguments could be used to justify changes in hiring policies, rather than in educational policy – I assume at least some HR managers are amenable to rational persuasion…

However, as far back as I can remember I’ve always been hearing Western governments call for the number of university graduates to be increased, usually for explicitly economic reasons. Tony Blair’s goal was “50% of young adults progressing to higher education by 2010”. Obama’s was that “by 2020 the United States should once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” in order to have the “most competitive workforce in the world”. If “institutional education is systematically over-valued” by companies, that would suggest that this widely shared educational policy goal is misguided, and should be abandoned.

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Pro Bono 03.08.17 at 4:41 pm

For several years, I ran a quant (mathematical programming) group in the City. I hired mainly PhDs in maths, physics or engineering. What they knew about their speciality was mostly useless to me: their ability to learn it was what I wanted.

Latterly, various universities started offering Master of Finance courses. There wasn’t much wrong with the courses themselves, but the people who took them were paying up in the hope that the credential would get them a job they wouldn’t otherwise be offered. I never hired one of them.

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engels 03.08.17 at 8:06 pm

There wasn’t much wrong with the courses themselves, but the people who took them were paying up in the hope that the credential would get them a job they wouldn’t otherwise be offered.

A bit hard to fault someone for that, isn’t it? Are you implying it’s only legitimate to take a course if you DON’T think it will improve your job opportunities?

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J-D 03.08.17 at 8:27 pm

One obvious possibility is that such arguments could be used to justify changes in hiring policies, rather than in educational policy – I assume at least some HR managers are amenable to rational persuasion…

So obvious, indeed, that you’re pointlessly repeating an observation I already made.

However, as far back as I can remember I’ve always been hearing Western governments call for the number of university graduates to be increased, usually for explicitly economic reasons. Tony Blair’s goal was “50% of young adults progressing to higher education by 2010”. Obama’s was that “by 2020 the United States should once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” in order to have the “most competitive workforce in the world”. If “institutional education is systematically over-valued” by companies, that would suggest that this widely shared educational policy goal is misguided, and should be abandoned.

So what change in policy does that translate into? That politicians should say different things in their speeches?

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Cian 03.08.17 at 9:37 pm

I actually have all the skills that None says you need to be a programmer (I did a Computer Science degree), and I’ve used a fraction of them. I suspect most programmers could get through their entire careers with none of them. Because what most programmers do really isn’t that complicated. And I doubt any programmer needs all of Donald Knuth’s ‘Concrete Mathematics’. Number theory? Really?

the engineer who [build a denormalized database] this obviously didn’t understand relational database theory, query optimization, information retrieval, disk storage management etc – which are at bottom all about “searching & sorting” algorithms.

Well probably not. But my coworker was the one who first complaiend about it and he doesn’t know that stuff either. He’s a good database designer though. Computer Science professors greatly exagerated the utility of many of the skills they teach. And fail to understand the utility of skills they fail to teach.

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Cian 03.08.17 at 9:51 pm

John Quiggin:
So, there are a lot of computer programmers (and related professionals) commenting here, but as far as I can tell, none without at least some college. I’ll count that as support for the OP.

Say what? This is a forum run by academics with a heavy bias towards topics that appeal to academics. So yeah, selection bias will mean most people who read this have at least some college… I do know some good programmers who did not go to college. One of them is actually quite brilliant.

The comparison is not between people today who have been to college, and those who don’t. Because in general people who go to college are those who are more likely to succeed in life at professional jobs. They’re motivated, they’re better at studying, they have socio-economic advantages. Plus in most fields it’s very hard to get a job if you don’t have at least a four year degree. It’s easier in computing (I’ve worked with them), but it still limits your options.

The comparison is between the person who 40 years ago would not have gone to college, but who today does. That the office worker of today with a four year degree is better trained than the office worker of 40 years ago with only a high school/trade school education. That goals such as Tony Blairs of increasing college entry to 50% will result in a more skilled workforce.

As for credentialism – it’s a thing. We’ve seen plenty of examples on this thread, including from people who think it’s a good thing. There are certain jobs that you will not get unless you have the requisite pieces of paper. It’s so common that people joke about it. In IT the jokes are pretty bitter.

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Cian 03.08.17 at 9:52 pm

J-D: So what change in policy does that translate into? That politicians should say different things in their speeches?

Tony Blair massively increased the number of people attending university without any noticeable affects on the economy, or productivity. So the policy changes in that instance seem pretty obvious.

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Cian 03.08.17 at 9:58 pm

J-D: I think I’m probably more prepared than John Quiggin is to entertain arguments that institutional education is systematically over-valued; but even supposing such arguments are correct, what changes in educational policy are they supposed to justify?

For vocational areas – less focus on (expensive) four year education run by researchers with little practical experience. More focus on practical training, with as much on the job experience as possible – with theory supporting practical training.

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Cian 03.08.17 at 10:02 pm

To almost argue against myself, I have taught programming to engineers and later experience with programs written by engineers helped convince me that they desperately needed formal training in the field. “some college” does not cut it when you’re writing large and complex software systems.

We really need to stop calling all programmers engineers. Some are, most aren’t. But yes, formal training is definitely necessary if you’re going to write complex software. The problem is that it’s usually ten years into your career before you’re responsible for it, by which time you’ve probably all the theory you learned is mostly forgotten. A few programmers (the good ones) will realize this and learn the stuff they need to know, or have forgotten. But most don’t.

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Anarcissie 03.09.17 at 2:43 am

engels 03.08.17 at 12:23 pm @ 135 — I’m just diagnosing widely observed phenomena. I would think anyone could learn to write computer programs, do auto mechanics, read maps, learn new languages, draw, play the piano, and so on, but that’s not what we observe. Hence the speculation has arisen in some quarters that there are many different forms of intelligence which are different from one another and unevenly distributed, just as physical attributes are.

Cian 03.08.17 at 9:37 pm @ 141 — I have (or had) most of those skills and never used any of them, except maybe in play. If I needed sophisticated mathematics, I went and found a mathematician, or temporarily became one in a very limited way. That kind of thing seldom occurred, however.

It hasn’t been much noted that credentialing apparatuses are often used not only to filter out the incompetent but the competent as well, in order to confine the numbers of the laborers available, limit them to certain ethnicities, locales, cultures, and so on.

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Moz of Yarramulla 03.09.17 at 3:02 am

Cian, I think I agree. There’s a difference between “engineer who writes software” and “engineer trained to write software” that is often missed. Then there are the “I write software, therefore I’m a software engineer”… yeh, nah. JQ isn’t an Economy Engineer no matter how much he might economonster (or whatever it is economists do :)

I’m also not convinced that training is what makes the difference, or that it takes experience to write complex software successfully. I started at high school and before I was old enough to legally sign a contract I was writing software with failure modes up to “kill the user” (industrial automation). It wasn’t IMO particularly complex software[1], but it was apparently complex enough to defeat a later maintainer who ended up contracting me to do the work (and document/explain the business rules so that they could try and fail to duplicate it using more modern non-RTOS systems – the shift from 1MHz clock to 2GHz wasn’t enough to cover the gap. So I was told).

OTOH I found some computer science courses very hard indeed because I’m not particularly inclined to hard theoretical stuff for fun. I need a reason to slog through it and “it’s in the curriculum” isn’t enough.

[1] I fear that I was lucky enough to latch onto “as simple as it can possible be, and no simpler” as a rule very early on. My career has involved large amounts of deleting code and not replacing it with different code, it’s just gone. “do something slowly using lots of code” becomes either “don’t do that” or “call a library function instead”. Now, back to uncoding the abomination I produced before I found that last library function :)

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J-D 03.09.17 at 4:01 am

Cian

Tony Blair massively increased the number of people attending university without any noticeable affects on the economy, or productivity. So the policy changes in that instance seem pretty obvious.

No, it’s precisely the policy changes that aren’t obvious. I don’t know how education policy works in the UK, and I don’t know how Tony Blair changed it. If you are telling me that the number of people attending university increased massively while Tony Blair was Prime Minister, I can understand that much, but what changes did Blair’s government make to produce that result?

and here

For vocational areas – less focus on (expensive) four year education run by researchers with little practical experience. More focus on practical training, with as much on the job experience as possible – with theory supporting practical training.

I likewise don’t know what kind of focus you’re talking about, so I don’t know how you’re envisaging having that focus changed. It’s easy enough to describe things governments might favour (or not favour), and it’s easy enough for governments to signal that they favour (or don’t favour) those things through their words, but things don’t happen just because governments say they favour them (or stop happening because governments say they don’t favour them). I don’t know what the reason is that university attendance increased under the Blair government, but I do know that statements by ministers announcing that they were focussing on increased university attendance wouldn’t have been enough to do the trick. So what kind of government actions are you referring to?

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Harry 03.09.17 at 4:52 am

J-D: the big expansion was under the Tories (1987-1997, though for sure Blair’s government kept it going after 97). It was driven almost entirely by central government policy, mainly by large changes to the funding system, the introduction of student loans, and freeing the polytechnics from local government control (most of the increase was achieved through the expansion of former polytechnics which were less risk averse, and more open to expansion, than the pre-92 institutions). Sure, demand was already there, but supply was artificially restricted before the post-1988 reforms. I don’t think anyone thinks that this was driven simply by changes in the economy or the culture (though no doubt both had some effect).

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J-D 03.09.17 at 6:06 am

Harry

It was driven almost entirely by central government policy, mainly by large changes to the funding system, the introduction of student loans, and freeing the polytechnics from local government control (most of the increase was achieved through the expansion of former polytechnics which were less risk averse, and more open to expansion, than the pre-92 institutions).

Now ‘changes to the funding system’ and ‘student loans’ I understand, although ‘freeing the polytechnics from local government control’ is obviously more specific to one country’s institutional arrangements.

So, if there are good arguments that institutional education is systematically over-valued, what changes to educational funding (possibly including student loans) are they supposed to justify? Global cuts, or what? I think I can make a fair guess at some likely effects of global cuts to education funding, mostly harmful, but I doubt that ending a systematic over-valuation of institutional education is likely to be among them.

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engels 03.09.17 at 12:08 pm

Anarcissie—I don’t really buy the multiple intelligence stuff but a very quick check shows Gardner had eight abilities—it’s hard for me to see which ones might allow you to get a degree in computer science but not be able to program, or vice-versa…

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engels 03.09.17 at 12:18 pm

I kind of regret jumping on the credentialism bandwagon a bit now as the thread now seems to be full people saying higher education should be scaled back because it doesn’t supply Wall Street / Silicon Valley with the labour force it wants. Which is every bit as annoying in its own way as the Panglossian/efficient-markets-esque defence.

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harry b 03.09.17 at 1:48 pm

I’m basically with John on this one. I understand the coding people here, though I have observed that computer science majors from my institution do extremely well-paid summer internships and walk (if they want to) into astonishingly well paid jobs. People like Thiel who say basically ‘college is pointless, you don’t need to go” are wicked. The problem in the US is not excessive graduation, but that, given the budget constraints and internal inefficiencies we have high rates of non-completion. My guess (that’s all it is) is that slightly lower rates of participation would lead to slightly higher completion rates. Also, there’s the problem that once college participation rates are high, schools orient themselves to that as the sole end of schooling, to the detriment of kids who, predictably, won’t attend college.

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Cian 03.09.17 at 2:15 pm

I kind of regret jumping on the credentialism bandwagon a bit now as the thread now seems to be full people saying higher education should be scaled back because it doesn’t supply Wall Street / Silicon Valley with the labour force it wants.

My position on this is that anyone who wants to go to be able to college for the fun of it should be able to. Study English, Philosophy, Physics, whatever. If you have demonstrated the capability to study these things at an advanced level, I feel you should be able to. I’m skeptical that these things necessarily result in a better ‘trained’ workforce (at least en masse), but I also don’t care. I want people to be able to study Merleau-Ponty and leave college debt free.

However, increasingly college is being seen as a place of vocational learning. More and more students are being ‘practical’ and going to college to study things like hospitality, business. I don’t think that universities are good places to teach these things, particularly in countries (the UK being particularly bad in this regard) where academics are forced to justify themselves solely through research output.

What’s worse, due to good old fashioned snobbery, vocational subjects are now being taught in four year colleges, because if you don’t have a Bachelors in these societies, you have more limited job options. Now I will accept that most of these subjects have some theoretical knowledge that you need to know (accounting say), there’s not four years worth of theoretical knowledge that needs to be crammed in before you get a job. Sure, there are exceptions. Engineering is one, medicine is another. So is Computing if you pursue it at an engineering level (which few graduates will). But these are disciplines that require a lot of maths and science knowledge as background. They’re unusual.

In the US things have got so bad now, that in many disciplines you now need a masters and possibly a PhD to advance in areas where this makes little sense (teaching, social work, ‘management’). Because otherwise your CV is going straight to the slush pile. I don’t think is healthy, particularly in countries like the UK/US where students get heavily into debt in order to acquire these credentials.

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Cian 03.09.17 at 2:20 pm

Anarcissie—I don’t really buy the multiple intelligence stuff but a very quick check shows Gardner had eight abilities—it’s hard for me to see which ones might allow you to get a degree in computer science but not be able to program, or vice-versa…

A degree in Computer Science requires mathematical skills and a high degree of academic abstract reasoning. Programming requires a certain kind of OCD and rigour, combined with a different kind of abstract thought and an obsession with simplicity. Basically if you lie awake at night annoyed with a clumsy bit of code, you’ll probably make a good programmer. But you can graduate just fine without that.

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Cian 03.09.17 at 2:28 pm

OTOH I found some computer science courses very hard indeed because I’m not particularly inclined to hard theoretical stuff for fun. I need a reason to slog through it and “it’s in the curriculum” isn’t enough.

I had a similar experience also, though I’ve also found I need a practical example to hang the theory on. The worst example of this at my (very theoretical) university was that we had a course on DB theory, but never actually touched a database… I barely passed that course. A couple of years out of college when (under the tutelage of an experienced DBA) I was starting to do serious database work I went back and looked at my textbook and foud it all pretty trivial to understand. I’ve had similar experiences recently with a lot of the theoretical stuff now that functional programming is becoming a thing. Lambda calculus is a lot easier for me to understand (along with things like category theory) now that I’ve written code using it.

I fear that I was lucky enough to latch onto “as simple as it can possible be, and no simpler” as a rule very early on.

I think that’s probably the most important thing a programmer can learn. The other useful thing is an obsession with elegance. If your solution is elegant, it will probably be relatively easy to maintain (and over time you will get faster at programming). I’ve maintained code that was barely documented, but because it was elegant was relatively easy to understand and mantain. Whereas it doesn’t matter how well you document bad code, it’s still impossible to grok.

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Layman 03.09.17 at 4:54 pm

harry b: “I’m basically with John on this one. I understand the coding people here, though I have observed that computer science majors from my institution do extremely well-paid summer internships and walk (if they want to) into astonishingly well paid jobs.”

All that means is that the employers for those good jobs are requiring the credentials. It doesn’t mean the credentials are actually necessary to do the jobs well. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but this observation says nothing about ‘credentialism’.

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Pro Bono 03.09.17 at 5:23 pm

Are you implying it’s only legitimate to take a course if you DON’T think it will improve your job opportunities?

Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that. My poorly expressed point was that many of the Masters students are likely to be disappointed by how little the credential does for their job opportunities. Because the employers they want to get hired by are not very interested in a little financial learning, they’re looking for a lot of aptitude.

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engels 03.09.17 at 5:44 pm

Thanks Cian (#154) I agree with that completely.

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Sebastian H 03.09.17 at 7:39 pm

Revisiting my #73 and your response at #74 “This seems specific to a very particular kind of employment structure.”

I would say that the defensive HR structure I describe in #73 applies to nearly all companies over about 100 employees and a majority or near majority of companies over 50 employees. According to the census, 51.6% of private employment is with large enterprises (more than 500 employees), 14% at medium (100-499 employees) and 16.7% at small enterprises (20-99 employees).

So even if it is just medium and large enterprises we are talking about 65% of the private workforce, and I would estimate that at least half of the small enterprises operate under the same lines. That means that between 65%-75% of the private workforce is implicated under what I discussed (where I showed that in some cases even if a credentialed person was less able to do the job they might get hired preferentially).

So it is a large enough part of the workforce to make a difference and requires at least a bit response.

You suggest that it would have to be something as powerful as racial or gender discrimination to continue that without it being self correcting in the marketplace (due to competitive pressure). How about class? College (and as college became more commonplace, masters degrees) form an excellent class marker.

Anecdotally my brother in law is a project manager at a huge contractor. He says he has made his career much more successful by using minority/gay/female employees who are underappreciated but do great work (which he has mixed feelings about–he’s happy to help them, but unhappy that he needs to). He is unable to do similar things with people who don’t have degrees because they can’t get in the door.

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J-D 03.09.17 at 8:17 pm

It’s true that the primary reason people go to universities is because they expect a university degree to improve their career prospects, but it’s not true that this represents a move away from a golden age when people went to universities primarily for non-vocational reasons. The golden age, like most golden ages, is a myth. The primary reason people went to medieval universities was to improve their career prospects.

(I don’t mean that it’s ever been exclusively about improving career prospects; there’s always been a mixture of motives. But if a university degree did nothing to improve your career prospects, although some people would still go, the numbers would be far smaller; and that was true in the Middle Ages also.)

Again, supposing for the sake of argument that the preoccupation with the vocational advantages of a university education is a harmful thing, what change in educational policy (not hiring policy, but educational policy) is that supposed to justify?

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engels 03.09.17 at 9:45 pm

Yep it’s class in Weber’s sense of opportunity-hoarding.

PB, that makes sense (I probably interpreted what you wrote a bit unsympathetically).

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engels 03.09.17 at 10:10 pm

The primary reason people went to medieval universities was to improve their career prospects.

That’s a bit like saying the reason Arthurian knights went on the quest for the Holy Grail was to improve their personal brands.

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M Caswell 03.09.17 at 11:03 pm

Again, supposing for the sake of argument that the preoccupation with the vocational advantages of a university education is a harmful thing, what change in educational policy (not hiring policy, but educational policy) is that supposed to justify?

1) the costs of job-training could be taken up by the private sector, or by the non-profit educational sector. I’d rather see the former, freeing up public and philanthropic funds for other uses, including other educational uses.

2) making job-training central to a university’s mission effectively puts curriculum and research under the indirect control of corporations.

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engels 03.10.17 at 12:21 am

supposing for the sake of argument that the preoccupation with the vocational advantages of a university education is a harmful thing, what change in educational policy (not hiring policy, but educational policy) is that supposed to justify?

Scrapping fees and loans; funding stuff because it’s valuable in itself, not because it can make money; issuing fewer PhDs in Wedding Catering Leadership etc

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Anarcissie 03.10.17 at 2:29 am

Cian 03.09.17 at 2:20 pm @ 155 — I think what you said is about right, although I would add the substantial benefit of a kind of dumbness or simple-mindedness which is forced to break any problem or question down into little tiny pieces on a conscious level. Maybe this is what you mean by OCD. The engineeringish stuff comes in because of the things that are done with computers, which connects them to the physical, financial, political, etc. worlds, just as a civil engineer eventually has to deal with the stubborn actuality of physical objects, money questions, politics, and the like. One starts out innocently coding and winds up in meetings, sometimes of the heavy-duty sort.

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J-D 03.10.17 at 3:31 am

engels

The primary reason people went to medieval universities was to improve their career prospects.

That’s a bit like saying the reason Arthurian knights went on the quest for the Holy Grail was to improve their personal brands.

I don’t get that at all. Real people went to medieval universities, and they really did so in order to improve their career prospects (well, as I previously observed, not exclusively, but primarily). There weren’t really any Arthurian knights or questers for the Holy Grail.
and this

supposing for the sake of argument that the preoccupation with the vocational advantages of a university education is a harmful thing, what change in educational policy (not hiring policy, but educational policy) is that supposed to justify?

Scrapping fees and loans; funding stuff because it’s valuable in itself, not because it can make money; issuing fewer PhDs in Wedding Catering Leadership etc

For a government to scrap university fees might be a good thing (or it might not), but it wouldn’t extinguish the preoccupation with the vocational advantages of a university education.
For the government to establish a policy of funding educational programs because they’re valuable in themselves, not because they can make money, there would need to be somebody making decisions about which educational programs are valuable in themselves, and it’s not clear who that would be; that makes it hard to understand how this change could be expected to extinguish the preoccupation with the vocational advantages of a university education.
For the government to issue edicts about which areas should produce fewer PhDs would involve a kind of detailed interference in academic affairs which would be so heavily criticised that I can’t regard it as a practical proposal.

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J-D 03.10.17 at 3:33 am

M Caswell

The question I asked was ‘What changes in educational policy?’; you don’t seem to have answered it.

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M Caswell 03.10.17 at 12:16 pm

I was counting ‘how educational institutions deploy their resources’ as ‘educational policy.’

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harry b 03.10.17 at 2:01 pm

“All that means is that the employers for those good jobs are requiring the credentials. It doesn’t mean the credentials are actually necessary to do the jobs well. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but this observation says nothing about ‘credentialism’.”

Yeah, sorry, that wasn’t supposed to be evidence that John is right, just an observation in response to the comments people are making about coding. And the observation is completely anecdotal and full of selection bias. The 4 CS students I’ve been teaching recently are among the smartest abstract thinkers I’ve ever met; one ended up in CS mainly because he was so horrified by the quality of teaching in a different department where he had intended to major; and 3 of them could, I am sure, have gone straight from high school into high paying jobs. (I conjecture that the 4th wouldn’t but only for labor market discrimination reasons). They’re all officially residents, so paying low tuition). They all, also, have completely unrelated remarkable talents. So, not at all evidence for John’s claim, which I nevertheless agree with….

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engels 03.10.17 at 3:23 pm

Reading threads like these you’d almost think there was an ideological consensus among policy intellectuals in favour of commodifying higher education that has never been shared by most ordinary people, even those who really aren’t ‘anti-business’ or especially politically inclined… weird!

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Cian 03.10.17 at 4:54 pm

Harry: Those remarkable starting salaries are partly a reflection of two things:
1) The DotCom/VC bubble (which is probably close to bursting)
2) The insane cost of living in Silicon Valley (a high salary doesn’t go far, particularly if you have a family)

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Cian 03.10.17 at 4:58 pm

I think what you said is about right, although I would add the substantial benefit of a kind of dumbness or simple-mindedness which is forced to break any problem or question down into little tiny pieces on a conscious level. Maybe this is what you mean by OCD.

I agree with this, but actually what I had in mind was more an obsession with checking little details and with cleaning things up. Making sure all your variable names/APIs use the same convention (and that your convention makes sense). Triple checking your code, and being paranoid about weird edge cases. Which neither gets taught anywhere I’m aware of, or requires any great intelligence, but makes a huge difference to producing maintainable robust code.

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Alex 03.10.17 at 10:39 pm

Back on the original Quiggin post, I find the Ashenden quote very odd. Apparently higher education has “exploded like an airbag”. An airbag that expands explosively is doing precisely what it was designed to do, in order to protect the user from a nasty road accident.

He might be thinking of a bubble, but the only way a bubble explodes is when it bursts, and higher education hasn’t burst. If he really means it with the airbag, rather than bursting, it will deflate slowly once the emergency is over. So is higher education like a airbag, inflating rapidly to protect us from some sort of crash and then deflating in a controlled fashion, or a bubble, or something else? If it is in fact like an airbag, perhaps it was triggered to cushion some sort of violent economic shock, in which case it is surely better than the alternative?

Ashenden’s unclear prose betrays his unclear thinking.

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Anarcissie 03.11.17 at 12:45 am

Cian 03.10.17 at 4:58 pm @ 172 —
Speaking of checking and testing things, as far as I know, QA is not taught in most academic environments and is not liked by managers or ‘software engineers’ — it’s not sexy — until they learn about its dire need from bitter experience on the job. I wonder if this is true in other kinds of engineering — build a bridge, watch it fall down, build another bridge, and so on…. I did see an article in Journal of the ACM in which a survey of large computer projects showed that more than half of them failed completely or wound up being used much differently than originally intended, and the ACM is (or was) pretty academic, so somebody on high was paying attention to the problem. Maybe things have changed. They hadn’t by the time of the ACA front-end disasters, though.

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JimV 03.11.17 at 2:31 pm

(Off-Topic Notice: only tangentially related to the main topic, if at all; moderator’s choice)

” I wonder if this is true in other kinds of engineering — build a bridge, watch it fall down, build another bridge, and so on”

Approximately all mechanical engineers are at some time shown a film of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge twisting itself to destruction due to wind-vortex-induced vibration. Calculations for that effect were henceforth included in the “Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers” (one of the books that should be included in all repositories that are intended for use in rebuilding civilization after the next fall).

Both nature and engineering work by the same basic principle: trial-and-error plus memory, otherwise known as evolution. I suspect all human problem-solving uses that principle, but after memory (books, lecture notes, films of bridge collapses, etc.) has expanded to make most tasks routine, we tend to forget how that memory was created.

On QA, when I first joined GE out of college as an engineering applications programmer, to complete each project we had to write a data folder (bound report, signed off by the manager) with a verbal description of the program, its flow chart, the input and output of a sample run, and a glossary of all variable and routine names, in alphabetical order, describing what they where used for and where they were used. The reports were kept in a Program Library with a full-time librarian, in both paper and microfiche form. Backups were sent periodically to Iron Mountain.

Under Welch, such procedures gradually melted away in the glare of his budget-cuts and layoffs.

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J-D 03.12.17 at 6:29 am

M Caswell

I was counting ‘how educational institutions deploy their resources’ as ‘educational policy.’

I cannot figure out from your earlier comment what changes you are recommending or would recommend in the internal resource allocation procedures of educational institutions.

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