Skills vs. School: Reshaping the Job Market Landscape

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I recently had the chance to speak with Fast Company senior editor Christopher Zara. Christopher runs the news desk at Fast Company and was previously a deputy editor at International Business Times. He is also the author of a new book titled, “Uneducated: A Memoir of Flunking Out, Falling Apart, and Finding My Worth”, which shares his experiences as a high school dropout in the elite world of NYC media. We talked about how a lack of access to higher education limits people's options, why attitudes around degree requirements are changing, and what it means for colleges.

 

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Summary of the Conversation

Christopher Zara's memoir, “Uneducated”, sheds light on his journey of navigating the professional world without a college degree. Coming from a working-class background, Zara struggled with behavioral issues in high school and spent a decade trying to figure out his life. It wasn't until he took an unpaid internship at a newspaper in New York City that he learned the craft of journalism. As a senior editor, Zara has now noticed the contrast between his background and his colleagues who graduated from Ivy League universities. He believed there was a perspective worth sharing about education and college from someone who didn't benefit from it.

Zara's book explores how education shapes our identities and the value associated with it. The author, who didn't finish high school, realized the power of education by working with highly educated people in journalism. Being on the margins of society, the author was scared of the topic of education coming up in the newsroom. The book aims to provide a perspective of the “uneducated” and challenges the misnomer of the term.

Zara often felt anxious about explaining their background to colleagues and feared being seen as different. He aligned politically with most colleagues but felt conflicted during the early-Trump era when the “white working class” was being discussed. As someone who falls into that category, Zara didn't feel accurately represented.

Feeling a sense of urgency and not feeling entitled to a career can be an advantage. His fear of “not belonging” in the industry pushed him to work harder and develop “grit”, which he believes is an advantage in the scrappy business of journalism. Zara believes that the power of higher education to define people is diminishing, and anyone can become a producer or capitalist through content creation.

Zara believes that there should be room for both types of learning in the world and that colleges should make themselves more accessible. Skills-based education is becoming increasingly important for remaining relevant in the job market, with companies like Google, Delta Airlines, and IBM shifting their hiring focus from strict degree requirements to skills-based demonstrations. This shift is healthy for both the curriculum and higher education's position in the job market. Skills-based hiring provides people without access to education a different way into the job market. Recalibrating the job market for middle-skill jobs is necessary, and schools should tailor their programs to meet the job market's needs.

Eliminating college degrees as a job requirement could provide a pathway for people to enter a career, but the bigger consequence could be a shift in companies being more invested in their employees. Companies would need to be more proactive in advancing their employees and providing on-the-job training. This would create more loyal employees and companies could be rated based on how well they advance their employees.

Zara suggests that applicant tracking systems could be made more fair by implementing design changes. Harvard Business School estimated that 34 million workers were being hidden from the job market due to these systems. Zara’s own experience of being rejected for jobs despite having a decade of experience is not uncommon. While the challenge of creating fairer systems is complicated, Zara believes that it’s good that people are thinking about it.

Zara suggests that schools and employers should focus on getting a well-rounded view of the person, similar to the interview process. He also wishes for cheaper schools to make education more accessible and inclusive. His advice for those in higher education is to think about who their ideal student is and to open up their idea of what the ideal student is to create a more reflective student body.

 

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Full Transcript

Ian Evenstar: Let’s talk about your memoir, Uneducated. This is a very personal account of you navigating the professional world without that coveted college degree. What are some of your insights from that journey that may shed light on the challenges that you faced?

Christopher Zara: I came from a pretty working-class background where not going to college, not even finishing high school in many cases, was not unusual, in that respect, my story wasn't that unusual. I had some behavioral issues in high school and made it to 11th grade before they finally threw me out.
I did manage to get a GED that same year, but I didn't go very far. When it came to schooling, I sort of wandered around for the next decade or so. I got into some problems with drugs and worked a lot of retail jobs and just sort of spent that entire decade up until I was in my early thirties trying to, you know, figure out what I was going to do with my life.

It wasn't until I came to New York City at the age of 35 and decided to take an unpaid internship at a newspaper that I learned the craft of journalism, essentially. So I learned really on the job through that internship it was a really small newspaper and I eventually got a staff job there and had a staff job at that small newspaper gave me experience doing just about anything there was to do at a newspaper. So I learned a lot at that small publication in New York City. I worked there for about 6 years and sort of used that as a springboard to other journalism jobs throughout my career. I've been in the game for about 20 years. It occurred to me that my background was different in media. That most people who work in media, who work as journalists, they go to school for it. They don't necessarily go to school for journalism, but they go to some school and it's often very good schools. My colleagues are very frequently graduates of Ivy League university J-schools like Columbia, Northwestern, and that kind of thing.

And the contrast between them and my background became noticeable to me. The more I became a senior editor and was in charge of hiring and in charge of managing people, the more my background stood out to me. I thought there was a perspective there that was worth sharing about education itself.
When I looked at a lot of the research and a lot of the literature on the education divide, obviously a lot of it is written by people who went to college, which makes sense because those are the academics who studied this kind of thing. But I thought there was room for a story about education and about college from someone who didn't benefit from it, like I did. And so that was the main thrust of the book and the main idea behind it.

IE: You've overcome such significant hurdles in terms of perception and how that kind of cultural identity is shaped within the professional world and how it hinges or depends on what school you went to, the faculty that you engaged with, what kind of publishing that you've done up until the point where you start your career but this idea that you felt compelled to tell a side of the educational divide or a perspective of the uneducated and those challenges, and I'm using air quotes here because that in itself I think is a misnomer, “the uneducated”, right?

CZ: Yeah, and it's sort of the point of the title. I mean, it's obviously meant to be air-quoted when you say it. I wouldn't legitimately call someone uneducated. But that's sort of the point.

IE: And there are probably other cases within the market where books on a particular topic are written by academics or by those who don't have firsthand experience. So I think that's quite noble that you, that you went out and shared that perspective. I know that the book explores how education defines and shapes our identities and shapes kind of the value that's associated with our identities and that's both cultural and societal. I think we learn of that maybe less now in the gig economy than we once did, but we learn of that through our families. Can you just elaborate a little bit more on how the perception of education in society influences those individuals?

CZ: The sort of ironic thing is even someone like myself with no real formal education, excuse me. I'm still defining myself around education as a quantity and the reason is because, I'm in my case, it's a little different because I'm surrounded by people all day long who are college graduates. So I see firsthand, through their experiences, what college brings to the table. In a lot of ways, it made me realize what I missed out on as someone who didn't go to school because I was forced to work shoulder to shoulder with such highly educated, maybe quote-unquote highly educated people who went all the way in school.

So being on sort of the margins of society as someone who didn't didn't finish high school and being. to kind of intermingle through the profession of journalism was really what showed me how education has this power. I was so scared for the topic of education to come up in my newsroom that I would sometimes slither and sneak away if I heard people talking about where they went to school or different aspects of their college experience. Like I knew that the subject might come around to me and someone would be like, “Hey, Zara, where did you go to school?” Most people I worked with didn't know because they don't look at your resume when you're kind of thrown in with them. So unless they're looking me up on LinkedIn, they might not know. And I was just terrified that the subject would come up and I would have to sort of overly explain this backstory of mine.

IE: That must've created a lot of stress and anxiety at times. I could only imagine. So, you internalized that feeling, and that anxiety and you said you were terrified that this subject may come up within a professional setting, but did you also feel distinctly different from those colleagues of yours, those peers that were, again, air quotes, educated or at least had gone to college or Ivy League? Did you feel it from a professional standard? Did you feel different than them?

CZ: I did, at times. I think it depended on what we were covering. You know, politically, I probably aligned with most of them on most things. I think that there's this somewhat false narrative that journalists are all of the same political stripes. Maybe some truth to it. I found that, maybe 80 percent of the time if we were writing stories, there was not any sort of conflict but there were times I think as I write in the book, especially during the early Trump era, that it became apparent that the white quote unquote white working class was going to be part of the narrative of this election of 2016. I fall into that category by definition because that's the category that was being defined as white people without college degrees. That's me. I didn't feel that those articles necessarily accurately described me or most people that I know. So I think there was a bit of a conflict there. I wasn't in a position there to do much to change it because I was afraid. I think I was a little bit afraid to rock the boat. So I did sort of, in a lot of ways toe the line, with the coverage. To answer your question, there were times when coverage would demand a certain point of view, and I felt that the perspectives were different.

IE: How about in terms of like skills or capabilities or one's like critical thinking ability, did you feel that you were on equal ground with those that had attended higher education?

CZ: That's a really tough question. I think it's hard to evaluate yourself. I can say that having learned most of what I do on the job, there were moments when I felt like I should know this thing, but I don’t. And often those were cultural references which the stakes are kind of low with some of this stuff. Like maybe it's a cultural reference about a website that everyone reads in college. I remember this website called The Toast, I think it was called. The millennials loved it. I think it was going out of business at some point. And I was like, what is this thing? Why don't I even know about it? So there were little moments like that. I think on the flip side of that, I learned certain elements of the profession by reading it up on it myself, like AP style or the philosophy on plagiarism or different aspects that you need to know when you work as a journalist. These were things that I just had to learn on my own. I didn't see a whole lot of evidence that the college-educated journalists knew some of that stuff any more than I did. So yeah, I guess it would depend.

IE: It's a fair answer. How about in terms of making it a strategic advantage or in some way, giving you an upper hand in critical thinking or developing a perspective for a piece? That’s an advantage in the case of the book, right? Because you have first-hand experience on this topic. But how about within the professional world and how do you approach your work assignments? Did you feel like you had an advantage at any point?

CZ: Some of the biggest advantages that I had counterintuitively was the fear of not belonging there. And that made me want to work harder. And it often meant staying late. It meant doubling down on assignments and doing more than was necessary. This was especially true during my first job because I had to put up with a boss that was sort of unstable and no one could deal with this guy. And people would be in and out of that office and be like, “I just can't work here. I can't work under these conditions.” For me, it was like, I didn't have a choice. I have to figure this out and I have to do it. And I think in that case, it was a real advantage. I think I did take some of that.

I hate to use the word grit because that sounds like I'm complimenting myself, but I think I took some of that grit to my future jobs as well, and journalism is a scrappy business. I mean, it's always on the cusp of being disrupted by technology or by competitors, or by something. So I do think there is an advantage to feeling that sense of urgency, that you are not owed this career. And it could end at any time. And so you need to be on your best game as much as you can. I can't speak for people directly who went to school for journalism, but I can say that if you study it and you spend a couple of years in a classroom learning it, and then you go out and you start doing it, maybe there's more of a sense of, I went to school for it and here I am and I deserve to be here. Whereas in my case, it was the opposite. I always had the sense that I didn't deserve to be there. And then I think that did make me probably feel like I had to work a little bit harder at times.

IE: You turned it into a superpower.

CZ: Yeah, I like to kind of look at it that way. I don't know if that's the whole truth, but yeah, I think that it came in handy.

IE: Well, it motivated you to work harder, as you put it, and maybe gave you a little resistance or buffer to that sensation of entitlement. And in the end, maybe you learned faster and produced better work, once you made that transition from kind of the personal world into the professional persona.
These days, the power of education or the power of higher ed to define who people are, I feel like that's diminishing, especially with the rise of content creators, the somewhat decentralized marketplace where anyone can become a kind of like a financial capitalist or a capitalist or a producer in some way, and they can define themselves around their influence. Do you think that that is inherently a good thing that higher ed is maybe not as coveted as this is the path and this is the trajectory that you need to go to be successful?

CZ: I do think it's good. I think that the first thing I would say on that is I never wanted the book to come off as being anti-college. If you look at what I'm trying to say, the story is really about how it's the exact opposite. Like, I understand why education is so important having not had it. That being said, I do think that the job, not just the job market, but society in general has been skewed a little too far in the direction of making college this important attribute that everyone had to have, that was especially apparent. I think it was supercharged after the 2008 financial crisis when there was this shift of employers demanding college degrees and I think if we shift back a little bit and give some power back to people who didn't go to college and have alternative pathways I think that's good. I think there should be room for both types of learning in the world.

IE: And what would you say then to the dean or the president of a university that hears that perspective that, “Hey, it's okay that your school isn't the first choice or isn't a necessity for success.” Do you have any perspective that you would share with that dean or words of advice on how to adapt to this trend?

CZ: This is probably going to sound a little bit obvious, but I think to the extent that schools can make themselves more accessible. That should be a priority for schools, and I'm saying that as an outsider. I'm sure, if I were face to face with the dean of a big school, they'd be like, “Well, duh, like, we haven't thought of that.” But that's the thing, the cost of college is probably the single biggest factor in terms of access, right? So if to the extent that colleges can figure out how to bring the costs down, I think that would bring us closer to this world where we could have it both ways, where people could study in an alternative setting or go to or go to a regular college if they wanted to. College is inaccessible to a lot of people. It was inaccessible to me and it's inaccessible to people who can't afford it. And sure there are options. There are ways around it. There are scholarships and things like that. But to make college more accessible, I think should be one of the big goals.

IE: Have you put any thinking toward that large design problem of bringing the cost down for the system at large? Any thoughts in that direction?

CZ: I wish I did. I mean, I feel like that that's a little bit above my pay grade to figure out the cost you know, how to bring the cost of college on. There are really smart people thinking about it and working on it. And I hope they're able to figure it out. I do hope that schools recognize the urgency there. You just mentioned that there’s the content creator element and influence on higher education. I think there's probably, I'm not the first one to say this, but Gen Z is slightly, maybe less interested in going to college than the millennials, and part of that is because of the debt that the millennial generation had to take on. And younger people are looking at that and saying, I don't want that. And especially when it's not guaranteeing me a job anyway.

IE: So access I think is one component that every senior administrator needs to be considering, especially as it relates to remaining relevant within the marketplace. The other place that we hear a lot that is of importance is to have more skills-based education built into the curriculum. So you have transferable skills within the job market. And I know that you've cited companies like Google, Delta Airlines, IBM, who have shifted hiring focus from strict degree requirements to what kind of skills-based demonstration can you provide in that hiring process. Do you see that shift equally healthy for the curriculum and for the position that higher education takes in one's kind of transformative journey from high school into the marketplace?

CZ: I think there might be some friction there in the beginning. Maybe there's friction now because schools might see these skills-based hiring as competing with what they do. I think there's a lot of good groups out there. One comes to mind MultiVerse, a company that works mainly out of the UK. They work with schools to develop skills-based curriculums and stuff like that. So I do think that figuring out what the job market needs and then tailoring your school programs. I think is a good thing.

The other aspect of skills-based hiring is crucially important is it gives people who don't have access to school at all a different way into a job market and companies like Google, IBM, and Delta Airlines. They're doing it largely, I think, out of necessity. There was this tightness in the labor market and they needed people, they needed workers. One of the things they realized was that some of these degree requirements were a little strict, especially when we're talking about middle-skill jobs that didn't necessarily need a college degree 10, or 20 years ago. And now suddenly they do. So in a way, we're recalibrating I hope anyway, that we're recalibrating what the job market looks like for folks who want to work in a job that's middle skills.

IE: So just to follow on question to that, then, if we look at private and public sectors, so, say, state government sectors and nonprofit, as well as private enterprise, if the hiring managers of these entities we're to eliminate college degrees as a requirement for job hiring. What are the potential consequences? It sounds like you're saying we're just recalibrating, but if we were to continue to go in that direction, do you see any consequences to that?

CZ: It's really hard to predict what the big-picture consequences would be. I would say that on a small scale, you can give people a pathway into a career. That's the 1st step. The 2nd step is the companies have to then, I think, be a little more proactive in advancing their employees and giving their own employees career development. And that part of that comes from on-the-job training that some of these groups I just mentioned like MultiVerse, also can provide, and I think maybe schools could be involved in providing on-the-job training.

This would give companies more opportunity to take the employees that they hire through a skills-based approach and then advance them and you create more loyal employees in that regard because you're investing in the employee's future. There are a few tools out there now that rate companies based on how, how well they advance their employees. I think AT&T was the top company and it was called The Opportunity Index. So I think that the bigger consequence could be a shift in where companies are a little bit more invested in the employees that they have.

IE: I think that makes a lot of sense and it's certainly a way since there is a high demand for high-quality talent and it's a very competitive marketplace in terms of finding those best-fit candidates for any role. So this could become an advantage, or a benefit to the employee if that company or that organization is offering skills-based learning that happens on the job and they're taking a real deep interest in advancing those employees and showing personal ownership and personal responsibility for the development of those employees. So to me, that makes a lot of sense in terms of hard skills or technical skills needed for the job. But there are those jobs, like journalism, that require critical thinking intellectual growth, and maturity in thought and perspective. Do you see advancing intellectual growth and stimulating the intellect? And the cognitive abilities or the soft skills. Do you see that as part of on-the-job training as well?

CZ: I do see that as part of life experience. And I do see it's not necessarily on-the-job training, but I can say in my case, this is just one person's example, but some of that stuff that you just mentioned, intellectual development and maturity comes with working and with working in a career and, and, and working toward advancing that yourself in that career, journalism is a unique example because it's a crucially important industry in terms of helping us understand the world and who tells stories about the world and that’s to me, an industry you don't want to wall off. You don't want to just make that too exclusive because then you have just a certain type of person telling the stories about the world and providing the facts and information that people need. So I think that, yeah, Columbia J School can produce great journalists and they do. But I don't think it should be the only path forward, even in an industry like journalism which is typically seen as being on the more academic side of things.

IE: You did a piece for the New York Times that talked about how there's some HR software that's like unfairly filtering out or sorting the working population resumes based on higher ed credentials. Do you remember that piece?

CZ: Yeah, I do. I remember my experience with them, with those applicant tracking systems. I remember being on the wrong side of those systems, for sure.

IE: And in that experience, do you see a fundamental design change that needs to happen within that software, or is there a preferred way for a hiring manager to quickly sort candidates, or is that just too much of an ideal?

CZ: I think that there are design changes that could happen to make those systems a little more fair. Harvard Business School studied this very phenomenon, and they estimated that 34 million workers were being hidden from the job market because of some of these systems that are in place that are built to weed them out. My own experience on the wrong side of that was when I had about a decade of experience. This is what I write about in the New York Times, a decade of experience in journalism. So I was pretty established. I got laid off at this one place that I worked at and then I thought, “Well, you know, sure. I got laid off, but you know, the world's my oyster now. I have a decade of experience. I've been an editor, I've been a writer and reporter. I've worked on four different continents. I should be able to just get another job.” And I remember I couldn't even get my resume seen because people were sending it back saying you don't have the required Bachelor’s degree. That was in the cases where I emailed the HR people directly to say, “What's going on? How come no one's getting back to me?”

Sometimes I wouldn't even get that far because the resume just goes into some rejection pile by default. And I don't think my experience is unusual but, to answer your question about design, I think the people who use these applicant tracking systems now do recognize that some of the filters they have in place are not necessarily fair. It's a tough challenge because you're talking about really complicated software. I don't have all the answers, but I do think it's good that they're thinking about it. And there are probably people in the world of software that are trying to figure out a better way.

IE: I've seen recently a lot of job descriptions posted as requiring a certain level of education or degree requirement or the equivalent and work experience. So maybe it's as simple as changing those systems to filter kind of with two criteria in mind versus just a single rubric or a single piece of criteria.

CZ: I mean, you just hit it right there. That's so important, but I think it comes with being intentional about it. And I think that companies for a long time didn't necessarily even think about it. They just said, yeah, you need a bachelor's degree to work here. And I think now because the discussion is happening, companies can be a little bit more intentional and they can think about, “What does each role really require?” And in some cases, it could be, “Yeah, a Bachelor’s degree is great, but also if you have five years of experience working in this industry, we'll take that too.” And I think that's a win-win because it's better for workers and it's better for companies.

IE: So there's the job application standpoint that we're talking about with the HR software, and then there's the college application software and system, and that's largely dependent on GPA, a student's financial ability to carry the tuition fee or their access to scholarship, or loans. Are there other filters? Like, what's the equivalent of, “Or relevant job experience” for the college applicant? I'm wondering about that.

CZ: That gets back to the design problem that you just mentioned. I think that when we talk about how to measure skills, there's some agreement that this needs to happen. There's probably a lot of disagreement on how those parameters are set. Now, I do think that a simple thing is don't just automatically filter out resumes based on a bachelor's degree if you're hiring for a job that doesn't necessarily need it. That's a simple thing. I think the harder thing is how do we then measure equivalent experience and what that means. I would hope that there's pretty good software out there that could achieve that.

IE: One thing that we've been advocating for quite a bit in terms of the college application is taking your university’s values or your guiding principles, the things that are near and dear to the identity of the university or the college, and articulating some form of a question. It's more qualitative, but like a prompt or a question within the application process that asks, “How do you feel about the value of innovation?” or “Tell us a time in your life when you displayed integrity”, and kind of honing in on the best-fit student, not necessarily from a GPA standpoint or financial background profile, but more from a set of values and principles and kind of getting at the core of who the individual is. It's more like psychographic mapping than demographic mapping which I think is more standard, but in that way, you at least know you have students who may not have the perfect academic score that you're looking for, but they're aligned on the values of what the institution supports and believes in.

CZ: I think that's a great philosophy and probably a great way to find the students that are the best fit. I think in some ways it replicates the interview process for a job when you go into an actual interview. They're going to ask you questions like that. They're going to ask you, “Why do you want to work here? What do you want to achieve in five years?” and things like that. So you're trying to get a well-rounded view of the person. I think in the case of schools, it makes sense to do that and for employers as well.

IE: So you can pull out your magic wand now, and you're gonna wave your magic wand and say, okay, this is what I wish for, for the future of higher education. How it can be more equitable, more inclusive, more accessible. What does that vision look like?

CZ: Cheaper schools I think is probably the first thing I would say. That sticker shock, I think it's just such a barrier for people. And I don't think that what I'm saying here is a revelation by any means. The schools and society have to figure out how to make education more affordable. And I don't have the answer to how to do that, but if I had a magic wand that could make that happen. And I think you would solve a lot of problems there. From the student perspective, maybe the schools would then find themselves in financial dire straits, I don't really know. But if I have the magic wand, that’s what I would wish for.

IE: That's a great wish. Thank you for lending your perspective and your expertise today. Any final thoughts for our listeners?

CZ: If I'm speaking directly to people who work in the world of higher education, I would say try to think about who you think your ideal student, the type of student you want to go after, is. And then ask yourself if that's really the ideal student. I think this translates well into the job market as well, because we assume that we know what we're looking for as employers, as people who are dating, you know, in the world, as consumers. And I think maybe schools also somewhat assume they know what they're looking for in a student. My words of wisdom there is, is you don't always know what you're looking for. So think about ways that you can open up your idea of what the ideal student is, and you might find that your student body is then more reflective of the broader world.

IE: Love that. Christopher Zara, ladies and gentlemen, with the final thought on this wonderful Higher Ed Happy Hour, what's the best way to connect with you if they want to reach out and learn more from you or continue to follow you?

CZ: I hope people will check out the book, Uneducated you can find it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble bookshop, or anywhere that books are sold. I have a website, ChristopherZara.com, and I'm the senior editor on the news desk at Fast Company, so I still write a lot too. I'm mostly an editor, but once in a while I still write, and just I still report so you can find me there as well.

IE: Excellent. I'm sure people will take you up on that. Thank you again for your time, Christopher. It's been a pleasure to have you on today and share a unique perspective. We don't always have this type of discussion and this type of perspective on the show, so it's been refreshing.

CZ: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it. 

 

 

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