Is College Necessary for Training the Workforce?

College is mostly unnecessary when it comes to training someone for the working world.  The truth is, outside of a few select professions (doctor, dentist, lawyer, teacher, scientific research fields), college is not needed in terms of training people for the workforce.  Take my profession of Supply Chain Management for example.  It is a profession most people fall into more so than specifically going to school for a degree in it.  I think I have had two or three managers who actually went to school specifically for supply chain, the rest had some other degree, with Engineering being the most popular.  Over the course of my career, around 80% of my peers had degrees in something other than Supply Chain.  I’ve worked in Supply Chain with people who had English degrees, Art degrees, Marketing degrees, Finance degrees, etc.  One of the most honest professors I ever had said for most jobs, college is unnecessary, you can learn everything you need to know about any profession with 5 years on the job training and experience.  That professor was absolutely correct.  I’ve mentored and hired many new graduates in my career, the ones that have taken the “traditional” route to the workforce (finish high school then go to college right out of high school) have had a bit of a steeper learning curve when it comes to real world applications of concepts and problem solving than those who have taken the non-traditional route (took a gap year or two, went back to college as an adult student).  Why is that?

It’s the function of experience.  Some of you may have heard of the 70-20-10 model:

The biggest factor in learning something is real world experience.  70% of learning should be real world experience, 20% should be informal learning (this is mentorships and networking with others) and only 10% should be formal learning (think in the classroom).  However, our education system, from elementary school through college is not set up to support learning through practical application.  Our current college system is set up for 85%+ formal learning, our elementary through high school is nearly 100% formal learning, leaving little to no time for actual application of learned concepts.  Most college internships last only a few months, and eligibility for a number of internships typically doesn’t start until 2 years of college are complete.  So for the first 15 years of a person’s schooling career, they are subjected to just listening to someone talk at them versus gaining any real experience that will result in personal growth and life success.  Students get to sit and listen to someone else tell them what to do or how to handle a situation without any actual practice in real world situations.  Also, most internships are for only a few months, which while valuable, still do not approach the 70% on the job training needed to effectively learn how to perform well in the role, as those internships end at some point. There simply is not enough time in a short term internship to learn enough or gain enough insight into handling real world situations.  Plus, many interns end up doing menial tasks that provide little worth in terms of real world experience (my philosophy with any intern I have hired is to give them the full responsibility of the role so they get the valuable on the job experience).  What is learned during that time spent listening to someone else dictate how situations should be handled and how the job is to be done?  Students learn that someone will tell them what to do and how to do it.  Then the expectation is that once in a real world situation, everything will be laid out as to what to do, and how to do it.  Sitting and listening to dictates, being taught what to think, not how to think, leaves a person wholly unprepared to face the challenges of the real world.

College is a drain on the workforce. It delays having productive workers enter the labor pool.  Up to 50% of students enter college and drop out, time that instead could have been better utilized learning on the job. The students that do graduate do so in an average of 5.1 years, with a number taking upwards of 6 years, prolonging entrance into the workforce.  That is a lot of productivity that is idle for a long time, and is a lot of time not gaining experience through actual hands on learning.  The honest truth is that there are only about 1 ½ to 2 years of classes that are actually useful to most people as it relates to prepping for a career (the major classes and ancillary prerequisites).  In reality, everything taught in those classes could be learned on the job in an environment where they would get real experience.  An apprenticeship model may be more effective.  Students would be faced with real situations in which they would have to come up with solutions to actual issues, and see the results of those decisions, contributing to learning that will be retained in a far greater quantity (people retain 75% of what they experience) than anything from a book (only 10% retention) or listening to a lecture (5% retention).  They would learn to figure things out for themselves instead of waiting for instruction.  Learning the theory is ok, and to an extent, somewhat necessary, but it’s the hands on experience that is going to be retained at a much higher rate than any lecture on theory.  Theory can be taught in conjunction with hands on experience, and may be more effectively retained in doing so.

College is a drain on the economy.  It saddles people with debt that takes many years to pay off.  Students leave college with an average of $37,712 in debt, and even thought the repayment terms on most student loans is 10 years, it takes an average of 18.5 years for students to pay off their loans.  Major purchases such as a house or car are put off as any money that could be used for savings for down payments to make those purchases goes to servicing loan debt.  Student loans have reduced debt holder’s appetite for risk and creativity.  Instead of taking on an entrepreneurial risk, those who may be apt to seek a more creative career choice tend to take a stable job with guaranteed earnings in order to service the debt.  Creativity and entrepreneurship is what continues to drive the economy forward, and the risk-reward payoff isn’t great enough for people with student loan debt to choose the more creative path over the stable path, starving the economy of new and creative ideas.  And referring to the approach to learning model above, those who would have chosen the creative career path may have been better off skipping school and learning on the job.  It would have been far more beneficial to them in realizing their dreams.

Getting married and starting a family is also delayed as a result of student loan debt.  Care of children has to be priority, and it can’t be if there is a financial storm cloud that would be any hindrance in being able to provide the children with the stability of food, clothing and shelter.  Children need a stable environment in order to thrive, and they certainly won’t have that if they are worried about where their next meal may come from, or if they have to live out of a car or shelter or constantly have to move because their parents have crushing student debt.

Now is all of this to say that college is a waste?  No it is not.  Full disclosure, I have three degrees, one in Supply Chain, one in Marketing, and an MBA in Supply Chain, as well as a professional certification.  Also full disclosure, I did drop out of college on my first go round (straight out of high school) in a 4 year institution, so I have been on both ends of the spectrum.  I got to a point in my life experience where I did a real evaluation of my career goals and made the choice to get my degree.  I certainly could have done all of the Supply Chain jobs I have held without the degree, but corporate America has a degree as a prerequisite for moving into an office job, especially in the large multinationals.  Since I wanted to get into an office job, I went and worked for my degree.  I wanted to get into management, so I went the route of getting an MBA.  Certainly though, if someone didn’t want to go into management, they could step into a Supply Chain role and coupled with the certification courses I took, be proficient within their role never having stepped foot in the classroom of a college. An evaluation needs to be made as to what that individual’s goals are.

College has its place in society and learning, but we need to be more judicious with how it’s promoted.  Not everyone should go to college.  That decision needs to be aligned with the goals of what that individual person is seeking as far as career path and life goals.  There is so much pressure on students to go to college so they can “get a good job”.  With this pressure has come a stigma of factory and trades jobs not being a “good job”, as well as a job in the trades may not provide the quality of life that being a college graduate does.  Trades jobs are in fact fine jobs, and very necessary jobs for keeping our society going.  Plumbers, mechanics, and welders are all key jobs that help our economy thrive.  Those in the trades potentially can make more than those with a college degree, especially if they want to take on owning their own business within that trade.  Take a licensed plumber and an artist as examples.  Now, while true the plumber isn’t going to make what a college graduate does right out of the gate, that plumber is spending time on the job gaining experience and making money while artist is in school likely collecting debt.  By the time that the artist graduates, the plumber (assuming both started their paths right out of high school), should they choose to get licensed (which takes 3-5 years’ experience), is making more money than the artist and is saddled with a lot less debt.  We would do well to not pressure students into going to college right out of high school.  There needs to be an evaluation done as far as career pathing goes, and that is a tough ask of an 18 year old, many of whom have not ever looked past tomorrow.  Taking a year or two to figure that out wouldn’t be a bad thing, and may end up saving that person (or their parents) money in the long run should they choose the college route, as they will have a clearer direction and may be less apt to change majors, which can and often does add time and cost to school.

For medical doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers, and those in scientific research fields, college is definitely a must.  For all other careers, it would be best to evaluate the need and align to what career goals that individual has.  If that individual envisions getting into management one day, the college route is needed.  If that individual doesn’t want to get into management, then college really isn’t all that necessary, it should be a nice to have, not an absolute must.  In many cases, an apprenticeship coupled with some formal learning is a more than sufficient route to becoming proficient in a role, leaving little need for a traditional 4 year college education in terms of job training.


  1. raysncane says:

    Tech schools and on the job training are still the best bang for the bucks.


    1. Tech schools are very much a good option for getting a lot more of that experience with the hands on learning. Sadly they do not get the publicity they should as an option for post high school or continuing education.


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