Volume VIII, #15
For those of you too young to remember the ABC television series Fantasy Island, Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalban) and Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize) were the overseers of a mysterious island where guests – B-list stars of the period – were granted their fantasies, which were bizarre enough to capture the attention of late 1970s TV audiences. Some of my favorite episodes include the painter (Sonny Bono) who tried to win back his wife by becoming a pirate, or the Texan who aimed to become a rodeo star to keep his son from discovering that he was actually a rodeo clown, or the man who wanted the power of telekinesis to impress his girlfriend, or the amnesiac who yearned to find out if she was a missing heiress (and naturally turned to voodoo to figure it out).
While I don’t recall a Fantasy Island episode about going to college, it would have been superfluous because most of America’s four-year colleges and universities act like Fantasy Islands where all students can become whoever and whatever they want, where every program is of equal value and where all degrees are equal and lead to virtually any career you like. So discover and explore who you can become.
While this sounds wonderful and consistent with the extended childhood and adolescence we bestow on kids nowadays (and by the way kids, get off my lawn!), the problem with fantasies – as we learn from Fantasy Island – is there’s always a dark side (see e.g., voodoo).
The dark side of College Fantasy Island is that millions of students are graduating into underemployment because they don’t have skills required to qualify – or even be considered – for good entry-level jobs. Position descriptions for the entry-level jobs most college graduates want (and need in order to begin to make payments on their student loans) consist primarily of two sets of skills. The first are technical (digital) skills, typically experience with the software required to manage a business function. Salesforce is a big one. According to Burning Glass, jobs demanding Salesforce experience have quadrupled in the past five years; in 2017, more than 300,000 open positions called for Salesforce skills. But most business functions now have dominant software packages that have found their way into job descriptions e.g., Marketo, HubSpot, Pardot (marketing), NetSuite (finance), Workday (HR). Add industry-specific software platforms to the mix – there are dozens for every sector – and you’d be forgiven for thinking that young people in search of their first professional position might have been better off mastering a few SaaS products instead of winding, grinding, bobbing and weaving their way through 120 credits.
But you’d be wrong. Because as evidenced by job descriptions, employers care as much about a second set of skills: soft skills like teamwork, communication, organization, creativity, adaptability, and punctuality. In a LinkedIn study of hiring managers, 59% said soft skills were difficult to find and this skill gap was limiting their productivity. A 2015 Wall Street Journal survey of nine hundred executives found that 89 percent have a very or somewhat difficult time finding candidates with the requisite soft skills.
Colleges and universities are the Mr. Roarke and Tattoo of human capital development. They aim to sustain the fantasy, at least for the duration of a 60-minute (or 120-credit) episode. This explains why schools aren’t teaching the technical (digital) skills that graduates need. Training students on the software required to process insurance claims could bring Fantasy Island to a crashing halt. It also explains why, while students are unquestionably gaining soft skills during their college years (although it’s a fair question whether they’re gaining soft skills as quickly and thoroughly on campus as they would in a work environment – count me skeptical), very few colleges track, measure, and/or make these soft skills evident to employers. Key soft skills could be easily conveyed to employers in the form of Credly badges or digital credentials, or Portfolium ePortfolios or pathways, but doing so might alert students that they may not have all the soft skills required to be hired out of college, thereby bursting the fantasy bubble.
An important soft skill that employers value – particularly for entry-level jobs – is humility. According to Brian Weed, CEO of entry-level career leader Avenica, “Avenica uses humility as a significant factor in screening our candidates. Our clients want college graduates who don’t expect things to be given to them, and understand that hard work is part of will make them succeed in their entry-level roles.” Humility springs from self-awareness, which a survey by Hult International Business School found was one of the most frequently cited areas for improvement among new graduates. “Someone who always thinks they are right is not well prepared to be wrong,” concluded Michael Lu, Hult’s Vice President of Marketing. Unfortunately, four years on Fantasy Island can be counterproductive for inculcating self-awareness and humility. The fact that colleges and universities haven’t been paying attention is, for lack of a better word, humiliating.
It’s incredible that Fantasy Island ran for seven seasons, because every episode is the same. Guests live out their fantasies only to find they’re not all they’re cracked up to be, and leave the island with a newfound appreciation of reality. So beyond committing to deliver a few job-relevant digital skills to every graduate, and to adopting digital credentialing or an ePortfolio for tracking and conveying soft skills to employers, colleges and universities could take a few additional concrete steps to help students achieve a similar result.
First, as discussed last time, rethink general education by allowing students to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills in the context of curriculum that’s clearly relevant to a first job. While taking a freshman year course in health insurance isn’t anyone’s fantasy, it’s more likely to lead to a good first job, or even a good first summer job.
Second, higher education institutions should abandon the fantasy that all programs are of equal value, and charge differentially, presumably based on expected earnings. (And no, that doesn't mean raising tuition for STEM programs, but rather lowering tuition for non-STEM programs.) If the idea of putting a lesser value on certain programs makes trustees queasy, an alternative would be to allow students to utilize Income Share Agreements to finance their education, at least in part.
Third, consider how to incorporate self-awareness and humility across the curriculum. Much as some schools attempt to provide an ethical dimension to their academic programs, no single initiative has as much potential to reduce or eliminate new graduate underemployment as a cross-curricular effort in humility.
At the start of every episode of Fantasy Island, Tattoo would run to the bell tower, look up to the sky, discover the plane carrying the arriving guests, and famously yell “The plane. The plane.” Discovery and Fantasy Island go hand-in-hand; any college or university would be poorer without a healthy dose of discovery. But four years of fantasy is too much. At the end of every episode, Mr. Rourke and Tattoo worked diligently to help guests connect the fantasy to improving their real lives at home. Let’s see if America’s colleges and universities can be as socially conscious as a 1970s ABC sitcom.