Simple Solutions to Complex Problems   1 comment

Are usually really, really, REALLY lame.

Charles Murray, W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has an opinion piece that goes something like this:

  • The BA acquired its current inflated status by accident.  (I agree)
  • The BA does not accurately reflect workforce competency.  (I agree)
  • Employers need some way of measuring workforce competency.  (Starting to lose me here, assumes the BA’s job is to measure workforce competency)
  • Ergo, we need a workforce competency certification exam.  (“Brrrp!  Sorry, Hans, wrong guess!  Would you like to try for Double Jeopardy, where the scores can really change!!?!?”)

Here’s a paragraph from the piece:

The model is the CPA exam that qualifies certified public accountants. The same test is used nationwide. It is thorough — four sections, timed, totaling 14 hours. A passing score indicates authentic competence (the pass rate is below 50%). Actual scores are reported in addition to pass/fail, so that employers can assess where the applicant falls in the distribution of accounting competence. You may have learned accounting at an anonymous online university, but your CPA score gives you a way to show employers you’re a stronger applicant than someone from an Ivy League school.

No.  No.  Nononono.

For one thing, passing the CPA exam does not necessarily indicate that you’re a great accountant.  It indicates that you have the ability to pass the CPA exam.  Just like the Bar exam does not indicate that you’re going to be a great lawyer, it indicates that you have the ability to pass the Bar.  For another thing, not all work is accounting.

Certification exams are by their very nature procedural-related.  For example, if you take the Cisco Certified CCNE exam, it tells someone looking at your score that you know the procedure for setting up a router.  It shows that you know the basics of the OSI model, and whatever else is contained in the exam.  These are all good things to know.  Someone taking this exam and passing can certainly talk to network folks and understand the lingo.  Passing the exam doesn’t tell you a damn thing about whether or not you’re a quality network engineer.

In fact, in the particular case of IT workers, a great many number of respectable authorities in the field regard certification exams as one (very minor) data point in measuring competency.  Wait, let me rephrase that.  Virtually *all* of the respectable authorities I’ve ever encountered regard certification exams as an incredibly poor baseline with which to measure competency.

You want to know whether or not a certification exam is really worthwhile?  Here’s a quick test -> do they allow you Internet access when you take the exam?  No?

Does your job prohibit you from Internet access while you are performing it?  (Hint -> yes, there are some.  Medical personnel are unlikely to check WebMD while performing surgery.  It’s probably a good idea to make sure that they can retain a giant freaking database of medical knowledge inside their head.)

But the general workforce… when does your boss ask you to accomplish something and tell you that you can’t use your computer?  EVER?

If you can answer a question in under three seconds with a web browser, why would you bother to store the information in your brain?  I’ve spent the last thirteen years training myself to use my brain to meld with other data storage mechanisms.  I don’t need to know what the complete specification for the IPv4 header is -> that’s what the Internet is FOR.  I just need to know how to find it if I need it.

For another thing… just what in God’s name goes on the Professional Workforce Competency Exam?  What… are you testing for?  How do you design this test?  Why do you think that a collection of quantifiable measures (say, a typing score of words per minute) should be… or can be… a suitable measure of workforce competency?  Hell, if I’m running my own company, I want my receptionist to be really friendly and have good attention to detail.  How do you test for that?  Why does someone who doesn’t have a degree in education (Murray’s Ph.D. is in Political Science) think that designing such an exam is even possible?  I took a couple of education classes as an undergrad and I’ve read a lot about cognative theory and learning processes, and I’m highly skeptical that you could produce an exam that would actually… you know… work.  Oddly enough, Murray seems to read a lot of educational literature, and gotten mixed ideas about exams.  He doesn’t like the SAT, particularly because it’s regarded as a singular metric, when composite metrics are more effective.  Back to the certification piece:

Certification tests would disadvantage just one set of people: Students who have gotten into well-known traditional schools, but who are coasting through their years in college and would score poorly on a certification test. Disadvantaging them is an outcome devoutly to be wished.

Really?  I don’t know… students who went to well-known traditional schools and joined well-known traditional fraternities and went to big beer parties with 200 other business majors might actually be damn good kids to hire.  They know people, and that can’t be measured with a certification.  Sure, you might not like them, but they might be good for your organization.

No technical barriers stand in the way of evolving toward a system where certification tests would replace the BA. Hundreds of certification tests already exist, for everything from building code inspectors to advanced medical specialties. The problem is a shortage of tests that are nationally accepted, like the CPA exam.

Here’s my main beef with this piece.

I agree wholeheartedly that it is ridiculous on the face of it that anyone requires a college degree as a minimum baseline for hiring.  It has vastly overinflated the importance of a college degree (sure, it makes you a better “all-around” human, in my opinion, but for crying out loud it shouldn’t be a requirement to get a job), which has in turn forced a lot of college kids into a place they don’t want to be, studying stuff they don’t want to learn, and most horribly turning them off from being in that place and learning that stuff later in life when they’d actually enjoy it.

I went to college (I wasn’t an outstanding undergraduate.  Sue me, I was eighteen.  For the record, though, I maintained my academic scholarship as an undergrad, which was a commitment, and I did graduate in four years.  I’m busting my rear in grad school and yes that does mean more than a little more something).  I know lots of people who have been to college and finished and lots of people who didn’t complete it.  It’s not a great predictor of general “success”, if you’re measuring “effective employee” on your success-o-meter.

Here’s what I know about going to college: at the undergraduate level… it rounds you out, somewhat.  You learn some things you might not learn otherwise.  You learn some things about yourself that you might not ever find out; or at the very least will take decades to get around to learning.  “Wow, I dig Psychology!  Who knew!”

It does test that you have the basic ability to haul your butt out of bed on the morning of the big exam which you must pass to retain your academic standing and go to class, and you’ve worked hard enough to pass that exam.

That’s about it, for some kids.  Not all (probably not even most).  Even for a college kids, that alone can be quite a bit.  For those who actually work, it *is* a good predictor of smarts, which can equal success depending on what you’re hiring.  For an employer, though, on the whole that’s not a hell of a lot.  Seeing two people, one of whom completed four years of college and the other of whom went to trade school for two years (and then went to work for some company during which they got promoted twice)… who are you going to pick?


How is replacing “getting a BA” with “getting a certification” helping any?  Well, it does help the kids who weren’t going to get $150,000 worth of learning out of going to college (there are some).  It does indicate that for straight procedural-type tasks the certification holder has a minimal competency.

However, the right answer to this problem is, “Hey, corporate America?  STOP using cookie cutter measurements to judge whether or not you ought to hire somebody!” Guess what?  If you want to know who to hire, you are never going to be able to achieve this by performing a search on Monster for “certified professional worker”.  There are lots of measures of competency.  Searching for one is just plain stupid, whether its a BA degree or a certification or membership in Pi Kappa Rho or whatever.  Murray sounds like he already knows this in some of his other writings, how can he think that certification exams are a Silver Bullet?

Why does “a college degree” have to have *any* business value, whatsoever?

Heck, if your kid is just going to use college to “find themselves”, isn’t that a worthy goal in and of itself?  Sure, maybe not one you want to spend that much cabbage attaining, but there’s lots of schools where you can “find yourself”, get a few mind-expanding moments, and do it all *before* you’re actually required to be a Responsible Adult for the next 60 years of your life.


Posted August 14, 2008 by padraic2112 in politics, social

One response to “Simple Solutions to Complex Problems

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  1. Nice writing style. I look forward to reading more in the future.

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