Volume VIII, #23
In college, in an effort to expand our campus tabloid newspaper’s coverage to the broader community, I assigned my roommate to write a profile of “New Haven’s social center,” the Burger King at the nearby Chapel Square Mall.
The piece begins with this vignette: “A customer walks in with blaring headphones and stares right at the cashier. The cashier keeps yelling, ‘Can I help you? Hey! Sir? Can I help you?’ The guy just looks at her, his voice dripping with contempt, and says, ‘Yeah, you can help me. I want a vanilla ice cream cone… but only after you wash your filthy hands.” The piece goes on to chronicle Burger King employees spitting on the floor, customers throwing change at cashiers and then yelling at them to give the money back, and how, while “quietly feasting on a #2 combo,” my roommate was approached by a gentleman trying to sell him a diary. The accompanying photo is of a cashier, with a large sign behind her: “Number of days with NO INJURIES: 157.”
Looking back, this piece characterizes the risk we once perceived of not going to college. If you didn’t go to college, you’d end up working at Burger King, getting yelled at, abused, and maybe injured. The alternative to college was a narrative of risk, whether from Burger King, or the other BK (bankruptcy), or a multitude of blue collar jobs where you could select from a long menu of potential bodily harm. In contrast, if you went to college, the only risk was eating at Burger King, or perhaps writing a snotty profile about eating at Burger King.
There’s been a Whopper of a shift to this risk equation over the past 25 years. Outside the bubble of our most selective schools, over half of enrolled students fail to complete a degree, and most graduates are afflicted by one or both of the crises of affordability and employability. At the same time, the public’s view of alternative to college began extending to tech. Gates begat Zuckerberg begat Thiel, and the risk of alternative to college became somewhat less about bodily harm, and somewhat more about: “Well, we didn’t know how it would pan out… But whaddaya know? Our company just went public!” That is, an incorrect perception of perhaps as much upside as downside to an alternative pathway.
Of course, in the real world, relative risk comes down to which path has a lower probability of a job at Burger King (because successful career launch should allow a graduate to navigate any reasonable level of student loan debt). As a result, we need to look at risk from a point of view that’s rarely considered in polite higher education circles: the employer’s perspective.
Up until a decade ago, employers had little downside in restricting entry-level candidates to bachelor’s degree graduates; per the prevailing college-social-compact, virtually all motivated and talented young people were funneled into four-year colleges, and graduates had demonstrated the stick-to-it-iveness required to complete an arduous, multi-year project. But today, many employers have started to question whether college graduates have the digital skills their job descriptions say are required for entry-level positions (and, relatedly, whether the few who do have the digital skills have sufficient soft skills to engage in semi-professional conversation), and some are tiring of new hires pining for student loan forgiveness benefits (and the ads hawking such benefit programs).
What has the potential to transform college into the riskier narrative is the fact that alternatives may have found a killer app: models that reduce or eliminate Hiring Friction. Hiring Friction is why employers are loath to hire candidates who haven’t already proven they can do the job, due to risk of a bad hire, or higher churn. Hiring Friction helps explain all the unfilled good jobs, and why employers are increasingly requiring years of relevant experience for positions that should be (and once were) entry level – for example, requiring that candidates for entry-level sales positions have two years of experience with the Salesforce CRM platform.
Alternatives are adopting models that eliminate Hiring Friction by providing employers with the opportunity to “try before they buy.” Techtonic is a good example. Techtonic is Boulder, CO-based software development shop that was recently approved by the U.S. Department of Labor as the first registered apprenticeship program for software development. Since then, Techtonic has marketed its services with a novel value proposition: not only does Techtonic address clients’ software development needs – whether for a mobile app, or a full-stack development project – but it also solves their talent needs. Techtonic apprentices begin working on client projects from week 6 or 7. And once they’ve billed 1,000 hours, clients can and are expected to hire them. Techtonic’s talent is remarkably diverse (40% underrepresented minority, 30% women, 25% veteran) and American-born. So Techtonic uniquely checks multiple boxes for its clients, and – critically – eliminates Hiring Friction because employers are only asked to make a hiring decision once they’ve become very familiar with a candidate’s work.
By eliminating Hiring Friction, what was previously a tough hiring decision for employers becomes a no-brainer, and the BK risk is commensurately lower. Moreover, because employers aren’t being asked to make a hiring decision, alternatives like Techtonic avoid the headache of interacting with HR. Most managers with a need for talent to complete immediate work are empowered to say yes to a new staffed or outsourced resource, and are therefore much more fertile ground for launching careers; after new talent is proven, the hiring process and paperwork become a mere formality tasked to HR.
But there’s no reason this killer app can’t be adopted by colleges and universities. For the past few years, the California Community College Foundation has adapted its Career Catalyst program, which initially acted as an independent agency through which state agencies would source student assistants, to a staffing agency for graduates of associate degree and certificate programs at California Community Colleges. Career Catalyst simplifies life for employers by handling payroll, benefits, liability insurance, record-keeping, and allowing employers like IQMS and PG&E to focus on trying out talent for between 80 and 1,500 hours before making hiring decisions. The result is less risk for employers, a higher likelihood of trying and buying more entry-level talent, and therefore lower Burger King risk for graduates.
In the past year, Career Catalyst has hired 1,000 students and staffed them out to 40 employers. But with additional investment, the California Community College Foundation could grow this program by several orders of magnitude. Could four-year colleges and universities figure out how to adopt a similar model? They’ll need to, because today’s students are seeking the less risky path to career launch.
For college vs. alternatives, the question is who will be king, and who will be Burger King? The winner will be the one who tells employers: Have It Your Way.