Looking For Talent In All The Wrong Places

Although Facebook seems to have absorbed much of the newsgathering from college reunions – slaves to the platform seem caught up 24/7 – reunions still play an important role in rekindling actual friendships and sharing stories and emotions that aren’t easily conveyed in Facebook posts. At my recent reunion, one classmate conveyed confusion after her husband decided he would be happier as a woman and transitioned into her wife. Another shared how her life was transformed after accepting a prominent position in the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and becoming a social media target for thousands of angry Trump supporters.

A third friend – now somewhat of a Lothario – told a story about how he was at the home of a paramour – a married woman. Believing the husband was out, they were upstairs in the bedroom. It turned out the husband had been taking a nap downstairs and before long, woke up, went into the kitchen, and began making a sandwich. Just as my friend was describing his fear at being caught in flagrante delicto, another classmate interrupted with what was apparently an urgent question. I had lots of questions as well. Like what were you doing with a married woman in the first place? How could you not know the husband was in the house? Why are you looking for love in all the wrong places? And more immediately, is this a good story to be sharing at reunion? But this question was quite different: “What kind of sandwich did he make?” My friend didn’t know. (Had he known, the story would have seemed even more improbable.) But the interlocutor must have been hungry, because he proceeded to recite a list of sandwiches: “Turkey? Tuna? BLT?”

Too often, hunger focuses us on the wrong things. Take talent-hungry employers posting jobs that demand a “bachelor’s degree from a top university.” There are thousands of them. And for every employer posting such a preference, many more demonstrate this bias based on the colleges and universities they actually hire from. Facebook hires more than 80% of its employees from elite colleges, and more than half of Facebook employees graduated from a top 10 school. Apple, Microsoft, Boeing, Deloitte, and IBM have all hired more than 10,000 employees from top 100 colleges. Even at Google, which famously declared in 2015 that “there is no relationship between where you went to school and how you did five, 10, 15 years into your career… so we stopped looking at it,” more than 80% of employees attended top 200 schools.

Employers behave this way because they believe top talent is best (or only) found at tier-1 colleges and universities. The job site Indeed surveyed hiring managers, and 29% preferred only hiring from elite universities, while another 48% said the caliber of the institution played a “somewhat important role.” Only 4% said they didn’t care. In the same survey, 43% of C-level executives agreed with the statement “top performers generally come from highly reputable/top institutions.”

A new report on the skills gap in data science and artificial intelligence from recruitment firm Correlation One shows employers are looking for talent in the wrong places. The report defines key competencies for the hundreds of thousands of open data science positions based on a data workflow framework that breaks these jobs down into workflows. Each workflow is mapped to discrete competencies. Then based on the most common skills (i.e., statistics, machine learning, SQL, hypothesis testing, experiment design, data wrangling and cleaning, quantitative data inference), Correlation One developed standardized assessments for jobs ranging from data analyst to machine learning engineer to data scientist, which were administered last year to over 50,000 aspiring candidates from 200 colleges and universities.

The assessment results show there are significantly more elite data science and analytics candidates coming out of tier-2 and tier-3 colleges and universities than the top 30 schools; 75% of all elite students are at tier-2 and tier-3 schools.

Even the most biased hiring managers and CEOs must recognize the limited population of students at top institutions; Ivy League universities enroll fewer than 60,000 undergraduates, just 0.3% of enrolled students, while the top 50 colleges enroll about 600,000, or 3%. But because interpreting talent micro-signals from candidates at tier-2 and tier-3 schools is hard – e.g., developing a sophisticated assessment while ensuring no adverse impact – far too many employers settle for the talent macro-signal of the tier-1 brand.

In so doing, employers are hurting themselves in two ways, and harming America to boot. The first self-imposed injury is paying more for talent. Focusing recruitment on tier-1 schools is like waiting until there are only a handful of seats left to buy airplane tickets: you end up paying more. PayScale shows that average early career salaries of top 10 college graduates can exceed those of large state institutions by 50% or more. In addition, because tier-1 graduates often get multiple offers, employers also end up spending much more on recruiting to convince these candidates to join, even at inflated salaries.

Employers’ second mistake is that the lower-tier talent they’re foregoing is probably superior to the tier-1 talent they’re getting. Correlation One finds that top candidates from tier-2 and tier-3 schools are significantly more skilled than average students from tier-1 schools. And this analysis doesn’t take into consideration the complaints most often voiced by consumers of tier-1 talent: that these employees are excellent at following instructions but inexperienced at puzzling through muddy problems; and because they’ve become accustomed to being told they’re perfect, they’re often paralyzed by failure. Continuing the airplane analogy, not only are employers paying more for tier-1 talent, they also buying lots of middle seats.


At my reunion, I was asked to moderate a panel on college admissions with the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions. The reunion organizers hoped the discussion might help calm the college admissions frenzy felt by many attendees. And while the Dean was forthcoming and articulate, the overall impact may have increased anxiety. In response to his sensible advice that the best strategy is for applicants to come across as authentic, one classmate asked for examples of authenticity, presumably so she could copy them for her child. Which reminded me of the “Non-Conformist Oath” on Steve Martin’s Wild and Crazy Guy concert album:
“Steve: Let’s repeat the Non-Conformist oath: I promise to be different.
Audience: I promise to be different.
Steve: I promise to be unique.
Audience: I promise to be unique.
Steve: I promise not to repeat things other people say.
Steve: Good!”

There can be no question that a major factor behind the college admissions craziness represented by Operation Varsity Blues and the ensuing national debate about admissions back doors and reified privilege at elite institutions is the sense that the path to entry-level jobs at America’s most prestigious employers runs through these schools. So the college admissions bottleneck drama starring Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman currently being played out in the pages of People and Us Weekly may not be much more than the natural (but very loud) echo of the bottleneck between postsecondary education and high-status jobs, and a direct result of employers looking for talent in all the wrong places.

The reunion admissions panel went on to discuss the pernicious effects of tier-1 admissions mania on our children e.g., the rapid rise in demand for mental health services in high school and college. We also covered the values the current system is conveying e.g., lying and cheating. In retrospect, what we should have gotten to is that many of the parents caught up in Operation Varsity Blues are employers themselves, and that their lying and cheating may by a byproduct of their own flawed hiring practices.

American employers aren’t innocent bystanders to the dumpster fire that is elite college admissions. By looking in the mirror, they can improve their own bottom line as well as the country’s.