Higher Ed & Corporate Thinking – Part 2

Thanks to my colleague Brett Tipton for his contribution to today’s blog post. Brett is a writer, teacher, and public speaker. He brings a great in-the-trenches perspective to the topic of higher education, how well it prepares students for the real world of corporate America, and how corporations themselves — and IT departments, in particular — approach recruitment and the positioning of new hires.

This post began organically enough: Brett published a post to his blog, to which I commented. It went from there.

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Curt Robbins

 See the first part of Curt’s blog here.


20838206_S-1214Good point regarding dissonant voices, Brett.

I’m not necessarily a fan of big corporations. However, in their defense, some rules do need to be established and enforced for the cohesive management of tens of thousands of employees. I often wonder how a big corporation with 50,000+ employees can pull it off. How does Foxconn (the infamous Taiwanese manufacturer that makes many Apple products), with 1.3 million employees, do it? Then again, I’m really digressing, because higher education isn’t really a part of that equation. But someday it will be.

After robotic and fully automated (i.e., nearly humanless) manufacturing takes over (and can do the job even cheaper than China’s pseudo slave labor), everyone in both China and the U.S. will need higher education to obtain a job. Certainly to get on a career track. With little need for blue collar manufacturing labor, high school students will realize they have two options: Pursue higher education or try to get one of the few well-paying trade positions. But most high school graduates will need to pursue higher education to avoid low-paying jobs or unemployment. Many would criticize me and say that we’re already there.

But I digress, Brett. I agree that corporations, the primary benefactors of higher education (other than students themselves), focus mostly on recruitment from our institutions of higher education, not the educational process itself. There are exceptions to this, of course. But the trend — the big picture — is that corporations are concerned with getting the most qualified graduates before their competition.

This has been an area on which IT, specifically, has focused in recent years, due largely to a shortage of qualified software developers, network engineers, and other technical skills. This is one reason why corporate IT imports so many of these skills from India (aside from reducing overhead because this imported talent costs less). When working within the IT departments of several Fortune 500 companies, many of my managers were out-of-office on a regular basis, manning a recruitment desk at a local college campus. The IT departments of smart companies are putting real resources into recruitment.

It begs the question: Should there be two “stages” to a student’s higher education? One in which the student obtains a “real world” education in the area they’ve chosen and another in cultural literacy, like classic literature, history, and philosophy? In other words, how important is cultural literacy versus the hard skills necessary for a particular profession?

I know… this debate could go on forever. I should write 600 page novels with an approach like this. But I think it all comes down to the fact that corporations, entities that are continually monitoring their overhead expenses and driving from the bottom line, don’t want the expense of being a bigger part of higher education. They have no motivation to help the average student better prepare for the realities of corporate life because they can cherry pick from the best graduates.

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Meanwhile, universities are intelligently spending more time focusing on educational curricula that are better at real world prep (like software development, nursing, and video production). Unfortunately, this is often at the expense of cultural literacy and soft sciences like psychology and writing (there’s only so many hours in the day, after all).

Nothing more than food for thought. But something that all of us — children, students, parents, and employees — should take seriously.


I’m not sure of the benefit of cultural literacy, at least in our current system. Most of those classes are required courses and students get through them (pass the test, write the paper, read the book, whatever). But since they are just going through the motions, they really don’t retain much — if any. Trying to teach them Shakespeare doesn’t work until they want to learn Shakespeare. Until that point, they will find a way to play the game. But then, it’s just a game, and learning isn’t the prime objective.

In terms of recruiting IT, I think most corporations recruit because most of the upper management doesn’t have a clue how to run the systems. And they don’t have a clue how to set up an environment where people can learn, grow, and keep up with technical trends. They would rather hire the cog they need as opposed to going through the hassle of growing from within.

They end up hiring people with technical skills, but without the skills to interface with real people. Those people then design machines and software that don’t interface well with real people. It becomes a huge perpetuating circle — people don’t understand the technology, hire someone who understands the technology (but not how to make it user friendly), and more counter-intuitive machines and software enter the market. Then there are more people that don’t understand the technology.

In terms of business, the real question is what kind of employees do they want? Do companies want people good at conforming and following systems that other people design? In that case, that’s what our higher education system produces. Or do companies want creative people who can design new systems, think in new ways, and challenge the status quo?

If that’s what they want, they won’t find it graduating from college.

Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle: Home Theater for the Internet AgeUnderstanding Home Theater, Understanding Personal Data Security, Understanding Cutting the Cord, and Understanding Digital Music. You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, on Instagram at curt_robbins, or read his Flipboard magazine Middle Class Tech.