Why education and employment go hand in hand

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In the new movie “Larry Crowne,” Tom Hanks plays a Navy veteran who is a manager at one of those big box stores where you can buy bananas, a TV, new tires for your car and fish tank all under one roof. Although he is something of a superstar employee, he’s unceremoniously let go when the company downsizes, and one reason he’s given is that he lacks the college education many other professionals have.

Of course, magical movie land, Hanks decides to go to community college to get an education and revamp his career. After making friends with a delightful group of students who ride scooters—because why wouldn’t they?—he develops a crush on his embittered speech teacher, played by Julia Roberts. You can only assume that romantic hilarity ensures. This is, after all, a comedy starring Hanks and Roberts. You’ll recall that last year she played a woman who needed to escape the confines of daily life and decided to eat her way through various countries. Along the way she ate and prayed and still looked fantastic. And Hanks managed to make being stranded on a deserted island fun and heartwarming. In other words, this movie’s goal isn’t to expose the anguish the average American would feel in this situation. The predicament, however, is all very real for many workers.

Veterans in the workforce
That Larry Crowne is a veteran who finds himself in a tough professional spot isn’t surprising. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The unemployment rate for veterans who served in the military at any time since September 2001–a group referred to as Gulf War-era II veterans–was 11.5 percent in 2010.” (Admittedly, this group of veterans would be of a different generation than Crowne’s.) Although the overall employment rate for veterans is approximately the same or slightly better than nonveterans in most categories, younger veterans have a moderately higher unemployment rate than older veterans.

A recent article on the Chicago Sun-Times highlights the plights of many unemployed veterans. According to the article, “Among the reasons for the high rate of veteran joblessness, advocates say:

  • Military culture, language and job skills are not easily translated or understood in the civilian world.
  • Many veterans coming out of the service don’t know how to effectively market themselves.
  • Insufficient private-sector involvement in government programs designed to help veterans transition into the civilian workforce.”

Education and career advancement
Another significant issue facing workers is education, or a lack thereof. The Lumina Foundation, an education advocacy foundation, has assessed the education level of the current workforce overall and state-by-state, and they found that college degrees will continue to be deciding factors in employment.

Recently on PBS’s “Nightly Business Report,” Jamie Merisotis, the president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, explained where we’re headed as a nation.

“The facts show that the number of jobs for workers with high school diplomas is shrinking, rapidly. In many cases, entire industries that employed these workers are vanishing,” Merisotis said. “Lifetime earnings of college graduates are nearly double of high school graduates.”

This outlook is mirrored by Dr. Mary B. Hawkins, president of Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb.

“Higher education is an economic issue when the unemployment rate for people who’ve never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have gone to college,” she explains. “It’s an issue when nearly eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade.”

That said, workers face serious hurdles when it comes to obtaining a degree: time and money. In the movie, Crowne can afford to go back to school and spend time with his scooter pals. In reality, workers would be panicking to pay for school and find a babysitter for their children or another job to offset the cost. Granted, this would have made for a downer of a film.

Some people have been able to overcome the time dilemma with online courses at schools like Bellevue or countless others, which allow for flexible schedules. Some students opt to take a lighter class load so that they can continue to work and earn money. Even with these options school is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor that workers, their families and maybe even their employers will continue to deal with in the future.

To get a clearer picture of where Americans are headed with regard to education, check out this extensive study, which breaks down education attainment state-by-state. It’s worth a read to see how the country’s workers what the workforce in your state looks like and what your job-search competition looks like. It might inspire you to hit the books or at least to revamp your résumé and cover letter to emphasize your educational qualifications. (Or maybe you’ll meet a teacher who looks just like a movie star and fall in love! If that happens, let us know in the comments section.)

As always, we’re interested in your experience. Has a college education been a boost to your career? Do you think employers are demanding a college education as a minimum requirement these days? Have you or anyone you know gone back to school to improve your career prospects?

27 Comments
  1. I think employers are using lack of a college degree as an excuse not to hire older workers with experience. I am planning to go back to school but since I can only get financial aid for full-time degree programs, I don’t really have an option to enroll in a certificate program which would probably give me skills I could use now to get a job. I can’t afford this large out-of-pocket investment.

    • I have that same feeling. I went back to college after a company down-sizing left me demoted after an excellent year’s work performance. I obtained my Masters Degree and have yet to obtain a higher level position within my current industry of employment. It appears the experience and age is not looked upon favorably.
      This used to be a wining combination.

  2. I have 20 years of experience in my industry with progressing levels of responsibility. I have two years of college and a 4.0 GPA , but life and money got in the way of finishing. Many of my industry peers have MBAs and PhDs. However, my lack of a degree has never ever been a deciding factor in gaining employment until this god-awful recession. Did I suddenly get stupid? No. Did I suddenly un-learn everything I have learned over the past 20 years? No. I have had employers tell me flat out that they would hire me on the spot if it weren’t for my lack of a degree. This has been a nightmare. Now I am nearly destitute and still without a job. Deemed too “overqualified” for more junior jobs, yet not qualified to do the same work I’ve done for the past two decades. Shall I do what every other person has done to create the trillion-dollar education credit bubble that is about to burst? Shall I get more student loans that I may or may not be able to pay back? What on earth is a person to do? Why is on-the-job experience and proven ability not worthy anymore?

  3. Unfortunately even if an older worker goes back to school that probably won’t help as much as you would think. If it comes down to the choice of an older worker being hired or someone younger being hired, the younger person would probably get the job.

    • Unfortunately this appears to be the new experience for persons with 20 plus years of experience and/or education. I believe this is the new way to deny those over 40-50 access to higher level positions.
      My plan is to stay positive and network with anyone we knew from past work related situations; or business relationships(if they are still coherent enough to assist us bridge the job gap; and if they are not expired. This is not meant to be negative, just logical.

  4. I am in the exact same situation as HELP is in. It was if I was reading my life story. I am so frustrated–I know my trade better than any college grad, and it doesn’t take a piece of paper to prove it!!

    Our government who is supposed to stimulate job growth and hasn’t. I believe this push for people to get an education is partially motivated by the lack of jobs available–it’s a delay tactic.

  5. Unfortunately there is a whole demographic in this situation now. Over 50, in the same career for 30 years, no college degree. And in my case, I live in a rural community, with the nearest major metropolis 2 hours away through a mountain pass. I think in these times it is not so much the lack of degree as advanced age that is preventing us from finding employment. We’re too old to employ, too young to collect social security, and have too many assets to obtain state assistance. We will soon be the homeless.

  6. I have to agree with most of the people replying to this article; As it stands I was not able to even start college as for the cost of it and I was dependent on my own to make it financially, and yet because I had some education $ in my GI Bill I was able to go to trade school with electronics as my major and I quickly found out it was not enough. I have been in Restaurant management off and on for 30+yrs and now I am 54 and without a job or income and not any food or a way to pay my bills or buy gas to look for a job. If I ever wanted to know what destitute meant I think I have a clear and concise picture of that today.
    We are the people that our greedy society and government hurts.

  7. In the last couple of years the majority of professional job openings required a four year degree to just get an interview. I had over 20 years of professional experience and only earned 80 college credits focusing in business and was having trouble “getting my feet in the door” for an interview. I enrolled in an on-line college to work towards my degree. Then I turned to the government task force because they only required certain amounts of specific job related credits. So after another thirty credits I qualified. There’s testing required to be eligible and once employed a probation period. The entity I work for only requires a year experience before you can promote to the next level. However, just because you have the education and are great test taker doesn’t mean you are capable of doing the job; where as someone with the work experience is worth the pay. I observed that at this entity with coworkers. I would probably give it a few years to “snow ball” and the employers will recognize for certain jobs the degree isn’t as important as work experience. It’s how the individual can apply their knowledge to the tasks at hand combined with a “can do” attitude.

    • While I would agree that the education excuse is one way for employers not to hire older workers, I have found that with so few jobs available and so many applying it is just one way of screening them down to a workable size of applicants. I feel the frustration cited here of being overqualified for the positions not requiring a college degree, but passed over for the ones I do have extensive experience for. I am back in school — a semester away from my AA and then have to rely on scholarships to finish. I am hoping in that period of time employers will be missing the work ethic of the “seasoned” employee — in my experience too many of the young eager college grads forget to show up for work if a better offer comes around!

  8. I would hire any one of you, as you all clearly write clear, and mostly correct sentences. To me, this means that you can think clearly, and communicate well. Use these skills, as not every college graduate has similar skills. Make sure you are writing separate cover letters, query letters, thank you notes, and resumes for each position, targeting you skills directly at the company. List the Institution you did attend and your focus. Read every word of a company’s website. Network like crazy, but do it with calm confidence. Don’t hand out resumes to everyone, but, rather, take the time to make friends. Try volunteer positions in an organization and proceed to make yourself indispensable.

    I think the tide is already turning and that employers are realizing that some colleges now are less rigorous that the high schools of 30 years ago. And take heart, it isn’t just you. My friends, mostly in their 20′s, have degrees, many of them have advanced degrees or are working on them, and most of them are working in non-salaried positions for wages not far above the minimum. They are waiters and retail clerks and adjunct instructors. They don’t have benefits, and they don’t have job security. They never have had these things, for the most part. They drag out student loans to pay bills to get by, accruing tremendous debt, and are sometimes unable to graduate, as if they do, they will have to stop living on student loans and start paying them off. They are turned down for jobs and never given any reason why, because there is not a good reason. They are told they need more experience, that if they had more experience they would be qualified. Youth isn’t helping.

    The reason jobs are so hard to find is because they are so hard to find that people who are hiring are hiring among their relatives, friends, school cohort, and employees. Many jobs posted are already filled, but the institutions have a policy of having to post all openings.

    Things are tough all over.

    • Yes, It is so. You all may remember this old saying “Its not what you know, but who you know”.
      That is what can and will get some of us through the door. Now if we have more known persons looking down at the grass, then the better our chances of obtaining our goals for both employment and for advanced employment.
      I do recall that in my current organization, there are fewer older persons with degrees and the more you apply but are outside the clique the less your chances of advancement.
      Nonetheless, having a job these days is better than being unemployed. And Yes, many persons making comments are much more literate than some younger college grads of today. They have the knowledge and refuse to use it. I have both the OTJT (On the job training) plus the MBA. It is the networking which will land you that job or position ultimately.

  9. While I feel for those individuals who are struggling with the frustration for not having the paper I am lacking sympathy for those who are saying there is no answer. Go and get it if you feel you are disadvantaged! And if you cannot afford it do not. You are not stuck and although the process can take some time the key is to act! Take the more junior position and excel in it, I find it difficult to believe people would not be hired for being over qualified. Proove that it is something you can do and want to do – and do it well. Find a part time study course or focus on saving up for the course you will attend. This desire and drive should be impressive to any employer. No one said it was going to be easy, ‘can do’ optimistic attitude is the way to go.

  10. I am an older employee (over 50) and I work at a job full time. I don’t like where I work, but it is a job. I am also attending college part time. I have earned my AA, my BS, and am currently working on my MS. My employer does not recognize my efforts to improve myself, he thought that Phi Theta Kappa was a sorority, and didn’t even know what Summa Cum Laude was. I have not job searched while obtaining my degrees because I want to have my degree and all the associated credentials in place before attempting to find a better job. However, I know that I will eventually work at a place that not only knows what those honors are, but will appreciate them as well.

    I wish the best of luck for anyone who is looking for work, but remember, it isn’t about being lucky, it is about sending forth a positive attitude and a willingness to do what it takes to get what you want.

  11. I have an MBA yet my employer ignores us with advanced degrees. We lost two Master-level employees this past year and others of us are looking to leave as well! Yet my employer sees fit to promote people with Associate degrees … F’em!

  12. Seems like many of you are going through the same thing as me. I have been constantly reminded during my reviews that “I do not have a degree and need to get it” and I feel this is drilled into the managers to say to all their coworkers. I am a female about 50 and have over 20 years experience in what I do. There isn’t anything I feel I cannot do on the job. I have trained my supervisors. I decided to finish the education (quit so many times in the past). Not quiting this time. I don’t know if this will really make a difference having the degree, but hopefully so. I have always enjoyed my jobs but I am frustrated lately. There is no appreciation. We have a few new people on our team-less than 1 year. Well when the boss is out he leaves the ones in charge one of the two “new” guys as backups. Not me.

  13. I feel for you people who haven’t got a job yet. I feel I was lucky because with the job I just started my employer said that she received 200 resumes. It is a small CPA firm and my cover letter said I love doing taxes. At the interview I gave them a 30-60-90 day plan written up like a proposal. I got this idea after buying information from someone who said this can give you a job. I am so glad that I tried it. My co-worker told me it was one of the reasons I got the job. I am 55 and was one of those 99′ers. I didn’t think I’d ever get a job. I never networked because I didn’t want to bother anyone. I would have if I had more confidence. Once in an interview for a job I wanted I had a lot of confidence. I prayed to God to help me. Other friends and family were praying for me too. Don’t give up! I will not be losing my home. Blessings! I wish all of you blessings, too!

  14. My company hires mostly people with BA and MBAs. They mostly work for
    Federal minimum wage. I have only a H.S. degree and some college, yet I
    make a six figure annual income with the same company. Go figure!

  15. Even if you had a 4 year degree and over 15 years experience. Employers are looking as to when you finish your education. if it is over 15 to 20 years ago, they base their hiring on your age, simple as that. They rather hire someone who is young, so they will work the company for a long time and not for someone who is close to retirement age. It may be against the law, to use age as a means of hiring. But that is the way company do business!

  16. “Has a college education been a boost to your career? Have you or anyone you know gone back to school to improve your career prospects?”

    I actually think having a Bachelor’s degree in History is a detriment to my job search because I get more than twice as many interviews when I don’t mention it on my resumes or applications. Although I have considered going to the incredibly cheap local community college for another degree or certificate, I’m not positive it would make any difference in my job search.

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