Here's Your Diploma -- Welcome to Unemployment

Proud Asian student holding diploma after graduating from college
Proud Asian student holding diploma after graduating from college

College graduation season is here again meaning few, if any, employment prospects for the record number of American grads facing unprecedented joblessness and underemployment.

Texas governor-turned-education-reformer Rick Perry thinks this disconnect between education and employability is cause for a fundamental overhaul of universities' role in society. According to Perry, public universities throughout Texas ought to shift their focus to preparing students for the work world, operating more like businesses in which students are the customers for whom the ultimate goal is landing a job.

Sayonara, Plato. Hello, accounting for all. Ugh.

This view of university education is pretty draconian, championing basic employment above the intrinsic value and purpose of education: education. But clearly, the status quo production of graduates discussing The Republic from behind the Starbucks barista stand, working part-time to pay off thousands in student loans, isn't sustainable.

A few weekends ago, I went back to my alma mater for our alumni weekend. When talking to soon-to-be graduates, preparing for their last few weeks on the ivory-towered campus, many seemed genuinely unpreturbed by their utter lack of post-grad prospects. It took me only one or two brief encounters to realize that asking the simple, obvious question, "What are your plans for next year?" was inherently awkward, if not entirely taboo. After all, the answer often elicited some version of, "Um... I don't know." Sadly, this is becoming both the socially accepted and expected answer.

In today's job market, an undergraduate degree means nothing and everything at the same time. We all know of the English majors applying to med school, the engineering grads working on Wall Street, or the philosophy students clerking at some law firm. Put simply, an undergraduate degree is unlikely to offer much in the way of career direction and marketable skills, which in part explains why many employers, like Google's Vice President of People Operations, hire based on capability, rather than expertise.

While it is understandable that many workplace skills ought to be learned through osmosis in the workplace, there isn't much of an excuse for failing to demonstrate capability after four years of college. Unfortunately, many students fail to do so, electing instead to spend four years boozing it up and skating by on passable, but hardly exceptional, grades.

Meanwhile, as hordes of college grads undergo the directionless pursuit of applying ad hoc to jobs for which they are seldom qualified, employers in the manufacturing industry are bemoaning the lack of skilled labor. According to the latest Skills Gap in Manufacturing Report, we are in the midst of talent challenge in the United States as business leaders face greater worker shortages.

For instance, in Pennsylvania, a manufacturing-heavy state, many employers face challenges filling jobs because prospective employees simply "don't have the skills," according to Kevin Shivers, Pennsylvania state director of the National Federal of Independent Business.

While Perry's reform is at risk of disregarding the inherent value in receiving a higher education, it is certainly true that there is a worrisome disconnect between education and employability. There are jobs. We just can't fill them, and that is undeniably a status quo begging for reform.