February 11, 2018

WANG | Learning to Work

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It’s not every day your business professor manages to temporarily unscrew your footing in the real world and leave you stumbling. But that’s exactly what happened when one of my professors offhandedly mentioned during one of his lectures a buzzy new concept: the signaling model of education and its application in the job market.

The signaling model is based on the relatively radical (or maybe not that radical, if you think about it) idea that human productivity is innate, and that our education does not change or improve that. Instead, our education signals to employers what our abilities are. If we go to a good school, that credential signals to our would-be employer that we did well in secondary school; therefore, we must be productive, intelligent and hard working. Meanwhile, the material we learn in college classes might not be directly related to the future jobs we hold, but the grades we attain tell employers how proficient of an employee we’ll be.

The whole model works because asymmetrical nature of information in the job employment market. While you might personally know your own competencies and productivity, the employer is often left in the dark, forced to rely on signals like the university you attended,  your GPA, and extracurricular activities to determine the best candidate.

Think of a recruiter when he looks at someone’s resume. The first thing that jumps out at them would be the applicant’s major. If someone is a humanities major, the recruiter tends to think they lie on the more creative side; and if that person is a STEM major, there’s a general assumption that person has more of a quantitative and analytical mindset. And while that’s a broad generalization, what major you study is the first significant impression your resume makes on a recruiter; it signals to the employer what kind of employee you might be. So if an English major wanted to turn the tables and signal that they were, in fact, more quantitatively oriented than their major might suggest, they could signal it by joining an analytically inclined club. Their skills might have improved over the course of the club, but perhaps the biggest net positive is that by putting this activity on their resume, employers are alerted that they have the skills to take on this job.

Which also tied into another point: How much of what we learned in our classes was applicable to our jobs?

I posed this question to my friends. One, who is studying in ILR and is an incoming summer intern for Morgan Stanley, gravely shook his head, admitting he hasn’t learned very much applicable to his job.

“But my Excel classes have been really useful,” he noted.

Another friend, who’s studying computer science, responded in the opposite. Without her classes, she asserted, she couldn’t possibly nail her interviews, which often require her to write complex code in a short amount of time.

“Of course, I could learn some of that stuff by myself, but that would be…”

“…hard,” I said, finishing the sentence for her.

It would also be illegitimate. Not illegitimate in the sense that she would have faked it, but illegitimate because she couldn’t attach shiny new diploma to it. Having a degree gives your education an air of authenticity, as if the only way to move up in life is to have a college degree (which is true). Not having a college degree signals to employers that either you weren’t smart enough, well off enough or conventional enough to go to college. Either way, it’s not their problem, and your resume ends up in the recycling bin. Goodbye, and good luck.

It’s also why, long after we disappear from this planet thanks to a mix of global degradation and aggressively sentient A.I., the student loan and university tuition business will be still be up and running. They understand that the power of signaling is well worth the fees they’re charging.

But if there’s one thing I do dislike about the signaling model, it considers learning itself as a zero sum game. Students do learn from their classes at university, even if it’s often conflated with the relative prestige of their university. Many highly technical fields require extensive undergraduate and graduate skill building, and despite my friend who points out she could learn much of her classes from books or online sources, there is value in professional guidance from  world class faculty. Even though the model makes a good point that students often benefit substantially from signaling, concrete skills and experience are still gained in the process.

Still, I’d like to point out some interesting examples of signaling you can find around campus. For instance, a student who works a part time job in college washing dishes might not find the skills immediately applicable to their future employment, but it signals to future employers they have a strong work ethic and can juggle multiple tasks. Students who participate on sports teams signal to employers they’re good team players. And then there’s classes taken by pre-medical students. For all the fuss about classes like organic chemistry, I’m not entirely sure it has much relevance or practical use in medical school and the profession. However, the rigorous nature of the class puts an immense pressure on students to effectively study and tests their critical thinking ability, which helps signal to medical schools which students are suited for the coursework.

It’s hard to argue there isn’t something gained from the process of hard work, even if it isn’t something necessarily tangible. Maybe a better way to phrase it is that we’re “learning how to work.” We’re learning how to complete our work as efficiently as possible, so we can juggle multiple classes, clubs and friends. It’s something we’re forced to face in a job, or in graduate school, where time is even more crunched and the stakes are raised a notch higher. Putting students in this time crunched environment sharpens their time management skills and helps them become more efficient learners. Even if there aren’t any concrete skills gained, there’s certainly value in the experience.


William Wang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at wwang@cornellsun.comWillpower appears alternate Mondays this semester.