Google’s career path sets dangerous precedent

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Google, with much fanfare, recently announced “three new Google Career Certificates in the high-paying, high-growth career fields of Data Analytics, Project Management, and User Experience (UX) Design. Like our IT Support and Automation in Python Certificates, these new career programs are designed and taught by Google employees who work in these fields.” The company further announced it would provide “100,000 need-based scholarships, funded by Google, to complete any of these career certificates.”

Seems like good news. And in some ways, it is. A corporation getting more involved in developing its future workforce, in this case in high-paying fields. And providing needs-based scholarships to pay for that training. We need more of both.

But what definitely isn’t good news is Google positioning this training as a substitute for obtaining a four-year degree. In a post about the new Google Career Certificates, Google SVP of Global Affairs Kent Walker wrote: “College degrees are out of reach for many Americans, and you shouldn’t need a college diploma to have economic security. We need new, accessible job-training solutions — from enhanced vocational programs to online education — to help America recover and rebuild.”

The evidence is clear that this kind of short-term technical training program is an inferior path to good-paying 40-year careers compared to obtaining a four-year degree. The data are clear that the four-year degree is the most reliable path to good-paying 40-year careers.

The work earnings premium for full-time workers is larger for 35-44-year-olds than it is for 25-34-year-olds. In 2019, it grew from $27,000 per year to $44,000 compared to those with a two-year degree where the wage premium is the narrowest. The increased average work earnings premium as you get on in your career, almost certainly, is a reflection that the skills you developed earning a BA are of value in work performance. Employers, in terms of who gets a raise and who gets promoted, are doing so on the basis of performance, not credentials.

What is so infuriating about Mr. Walker’s positioning this initiative as an alternative to getting a four-year degree is Google, probably more than any company in America, knows better. Google’s own research found that the seven top characteristics of successful employees at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

These are not skills one learns in a six-month career certificate training program. As the Washington Post wrote about the Google research: “Those traits sound more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it? After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists and even the MBAs that, initially, (it) viewed with disdain.”

Probably the best evidence that a four-year degree is the superior path to good-paying 40-year careers is the education the affluent are providing their own kids. The Federal Reserve found in its annual report on the economic well-being of American households that 72% of those ages 22-29 with at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree have a BA. This compares to 35% with a BA of those ages 22-29 with at least one parent with some college but neither with a bachelor’s degree, and 19% of those with both parents having a high school degree or less.

“College degrees are out of reach for many Americans” is not preordained. It is a political choice. As long as we pursue that path, we are cementing a growing education caste system in American, where for the first time ever your parents’ education is the best predictor of your education attainment.

Rather than using “college degrees are out of reach for many Americans” as a rationale for steering others’ kids into technical training programs, what Google and other American corporations should be doing is fighting to change public policies at the state and federal level that have made a four-year degree out of reach for far too many. These companies need to be at the forefront of reversing decades of disinvestment in education for non-affluent children from birth through college and ending education designed to build narrow first-job skills in others’ children while at the same time providing their own kids with a broad liberal arts education from birth through college.

ThinkLaw’s Colin Seale got it exactly right when he wrote in a Forbes column: “It is inequitable to support a ‘college isn’t for everyone’ mentality that treats higher education as an obvious expectation for students from privileged backgrounds and as a luxury good for others.”

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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