College Graduates Are “Between Two Ferns”

Today marks the release of a new Netflix movie based on the worst talk show ever produced. Zach Galifianakis’ Between Two Ferns ran sporadically on Funny or Die for nearly a decade and showcased celebrity interviews on a set that looked like a public access production: black backdrop, two chairs, a table, and a potted fern on either side.

The conceit was an awkward talk show host (Galifianakis) asking celebrities alternatively dumb or off-putting questions. To Brad Pitt: “Is it hard for you to maintain a suntan because you live in your wife’s shadow?” Justin Bieber: “You’ve had three hairstyles, what’s next for your career?” and “What was the last toy you got in a Happy Meal?” Bradley Cooper is proud of being on the cover of Details Magazine – “a really good publication,” acknowledges Galifianakis, “if you have run out of cologne.” President Obama appeared on Between Two Ferns to promote the Affordable Care Act and was rewarded with: “I have to know: What’s it like to be the Last Black President?” Although our Last Good President deftly parried with “What’s it like for this to be the last time you ever talk to a President?” most questions find celebrities shaking their heads or staring at the floor, visibly uncomfortable. Between Two Ferns is an uncomfortable place to be.

New college graduates find themselves in a similarly uncomfortable position. Like the guests on Between Two Ferns, they are stuck between two institutions that are about as helpful to launching their careers as potted plants.

The potted plant of the university is Career Services. College and university Career Services offices are typically located in out-of-the-way locations, often on the periphery of campus, and rarely open on evenings and weekends. About half of all students never set foot in Career Services, and when they do, they’ll probably see a fern or two, as well as an overbooked counselor who’s a Career Services lifer rather than a professional with relevant experience and networks in desired sectors. The very concept of “Career Services” does students a disservice by conveying they aren’t expected to think about employment and employability until just before they graduate.

But like that fern that just won’t die, Career Services isn’t going away anytime soon. Efforts to infuse career services across the university are often met by a bureaucratic reflex. Because if everyone is responsible for career counseling and employer connections – or if emerging online platforms incorporate real work from real employers into college coursework – there may be no need for a central function (and there may be no employers paying on-campus recruitment fees to fund Career Services budgets).


Last week I was at a meeting with a well-known professor and expert on the future of work who shared his considered opinion that “most Human Resources managers make Stalinist-era Soviet bureaucrats look thoughtful and progressive.” Is it possible, I wondered, that Human Resources is the twin quasar of Career Services? The potted plant of the employer?

Human Resources (HR) gets a bad rap in business circles. Common complaints include being a box-ticking function, too focused on keeping processes uniform and exception-free. Many believe the primary function of HR is compliance and regulatory and that HR’s great purpose is to keep the organization from being sued by its own employees.

In terms of the function most pertinent to new grads – recruiting and hiring – HR is responsible for the parlous state of job descriptions and keyword-based filters on Applicant Tracking Systems resulting in the degree inflation and experience inflation that continue to produce widespread underemployment in a full-employment economy. One recent study showed that 61% of entry-level positions appear to be asking for at least three years of experience – transforming entry-level jobs into oxymorons (and underscoring “morons” for the HR professionals who have allowed this to happen). All of which explains why 77% of employers believe their hiring process is excellent or very good, while 84% of candidates report negative experiences.

Most of us, in a moment of candor, will acknowledge we’ve badmouthed HR at one time or another. One Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) at a tech company told me HR is often viewed as “navel gazing… Every other business function has an external focus, requiring the capability to think about the business competitively. But HR is inwardly focused and associated with firing people and a lack of organizational authority.”

Ironically, the disdain felt for HR may ultimately stem from lack of talent. In one survey, 58% of CFOs said their head of HR was not of the same caliber as other C-level executives and 67% said they didn’t understand the business well enough. Another CHRO shared with me that “while conventional wisdom says that HR is all about touchy-feely stuff and this is what attracts people to the field, its key functions are compensation, benefits, and recruiting, all of which require distinct hard skills. Compensation necessitates analytical skills. Managing benefits means understanding underwriting and claims history. And recruiting and hiring is a go-to-market function like sales and marketing that requires calculating cost of acquisition and funnel analysis.” In an eerie echo of Career Services, she continued, “HR leaders are typically HR lifers rather than managers with skills developed in core business and finance functions. They react to problems rather than anticipating them. And with one or two exceptions, there aren’t university programs that do a good job of preparing HR leaders.”

This same CHRO shared with me that she was at a conference a few years ago where two Fortune 500 leaders were delivering a presentation on CEO succession planning. She asked whether CHROs were ever considered to succeed CEOs. The answer was no, because CHROs don’t have P&L experience. Which led to her follow-up question: have you ever tried to rotate other executives into the CHRO role so that they’ll have HR experience prior to becoming CEO. The answer: “Nobody would want to do that. It would be perceived as a step down.” (Kind of like asking an Academic Dean to go run Career Services.) HR finds itself in a vicious circle because its poor reputation limits the inflow of new talent, producing a marked lack of talent in the talent business.

Just as Career Services is undervalued and under-invested at colleges and universities, American companies trail the world in recognizing the importance of Human Resources. In most other regions, the HR function is valued more highly and HR leaders report directly to the CEO. At many American companies, that’s not the case, with the head of HR reporting to the COO (signaling that HR is tactical, required for product or service delivery), the CFO (signaling that HR is an expense to be managed), or even the General Counsel (signaling that HR is the company’s biggest liability).

Responsible for the supply of – and demand for – entry-level talent, the two ferns of Career Services and Human Resources are mirror images of each other. You wouldn’t want to be stuck between them. But that’s exactly where millions of college graduates find themselves each and every year, between the neglected redheaded stepchildren of their respective enterprises.


There are glimmers that the HR function may be on a path to becoming more helpful to new and recent grads than a potted plant. IBM may be closest to realizing the People Analytics Revolution, integrating AI into key HR functions such as recruitment and career planning. McKinsey has all-but-officially declared that HR is an undervalued strategic function and is advising hundreds of clients accordingly. And top companies like Microsoft have recruited high profile executives from outside HR into the CHRO role.

But it’s also possible that these glimmers are appearing for the wrong reason i.e., less a result of leadership recognizing the failure of HR to add strategic value than a breakdown in compliance. In the tech sector, bad behavior at companies like Google and Uber have changed priorities such that leading investors now advocate hiring an experienced HR leader as soon as possible or risk “catastrophic failure through self-inflicted wounds.” So it’s still even money as to whether the HR fern moves before the Career Services fern; neither looks particularly nimble.

In the last episode of Between Two Ferns, midway through a series of belittling questions, guest Jerry Seinfeld is surprised by Galifianakis’ announcement of a second guest: rapper Cardi B. The host engages in kind banter with his new guest, telling her how relevant she is, while Seinfeld is banished:

Seinfeld: I’m not even between the ferns anymore. I don’t even fit the description of the show.
Galifianakis: When I do another show called To The Right of a Fern you’ll be the first guest.

For Galifianakis and his celebrity guests, To The Right of a Fern would probably be a better show; it couldn’t be much worse. And for many new grads, getting to the right of either the Career Services or HR fern – for example, through new models that connect candidates directly to managers with an immediate need for talent – would be a very welcome change, not to mention the premise for a better Netflix movie.