Bryan Caplan  

Proving You're Qualified; or Not

Libertarian Ideas for the Main... Proving You're Qualified
I was excited when Proving You're Qualified: Strategies for Competent People Without College Degrees showed up on my desk.  Unfortunately, the book fell far short of my high hopes.  You have to read over half the book before the author, Charles Hayes, really begins to offer any of the promised strategies.  And when he finally gets down to business, his suggestions are underwhelming.  The best he's got:

1. Write a glass-half-full resume.
If listing the details of your education will not support your objectives, as in the case of having dropped out of high school, then find a way to state the information in the most positive light possible, or leave the education section out completely.  For example, you could list the year you passed the GED test or simply elaborate on practical (experiential) learning you've acquired, independent workshops you've attended, or hours of college credit you may have accumulated.
2. If the last clause seems like a slip of the pen, Hayes repeats it.
Another way to combat negative response to your not finishing high school is to change the focus from not having finished high school to that of having some college.
Yes, but what if your whole problem is that you hate school?  If your antipathy was severe enough prevent high school graduation, how is skipping straight to college supposed to help?

3. Consider vocational school, but talk to people already in the industry first:
Ask if a certificate from the training school you are considering is really a respected credential.  Find out if there are opportunities to learn what you need to know as a trainee or apprentice, is which case you could earn while your learn...
4. Consider correspondence school.  Hayes approvingly quotes Bear's Guide to Earning College Degrees Non-Traditionally:
If, for instance, a Bachelor's degree is required for a job, a promotion, or a salary increase, then the accredited degree of the University of the State of New York, earned 100% by correspondence courses, is exactly as good... and the cost would be less than 5% as much...
This is probably the most intriguing - and non-obvious - suggestion in the book.  But would it really work this well in practice? 

5. Be awesome.
One of the best ways to fight credentialism at a practical level is to rise above it by developing genuine expertise in your own field and in your own life.
Plan the layout and development of your own storyboard production to deliver overwhelming evidence of your ability to rise to the occasion of any likely work situation.
Fine as far as it goes, but I thought the book was aimed at "competent people without college degrees" not "genuine experts without college degrees."

6. Buy more copies of the book.
If you have minds to change, a good way to broach the subject is to give the people involved some written material such as this book.  If you can't get them to read a whole book try for a chapter.

Hayes is firmly in sociology's "pure credentialism" tradition.  According to this tradition, educated workers are not, on average, better workers.  Not only does school fail to teach job skills; school isn't even a signal of job skills.  But if this theory is correct, here's a great strategy Hayes overlooks: Start your own business, and staff it entirely with high school drop-outs.  Just offer, say, a 20% premium over typical wages for drop-outs.  Then pocket the difference between your labor costs and the competition's.  If pure credentialism is true, this should work.  Anyone want to give it a try?

COMMENTS (13 to date)
PrometheeFeu writes:

"Anyone want to give it a try?"

No. In my industry, people who you want to hire as a general rule have gone to college because they know it's a pre-req to getting the job. So while I would definitely hire a qualified high-school drop-out, I would also not exclude college-degree bearing workers. writes:

I think better advice is to develop a narrative for your life, and make it known to your friends and acquaintances. For most non-entry level positions, you're more likely to get an interview based on a personal recommendation than you are off a blind resume.

I had mediocre grades in high-school, good grades in engineering courses in college with mediocre grades in other classes, and my best grades came in grad school where all my classes were engineering classes.

My narrative is that I'm not good at work when I don't care about it, but I can "buy in" to a strange job with unique requirements very well. This is the narrative that got me a job because the job is weird and a friend knew my narrative. It also means I have a job that makes me happy because my narrative is the truth.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

All this is very sad. The structural inertia of our credentialist (and educationist) system stifles raw talent, represses raw potential. This is a Holocaust, a silent Holocaust, parading under false colors. The waste of talent is truly immense.

It is a tragedy that this is all Hayes can come up with -- and an indictment of our autopoietic filtering mechanisms and the mass society that blindly supports it.

Finch writes:

Does he mention the open source community? In tech circles one of the best ways you can demonstrate that you'll be able to do a job is by publicly doing a very similar job.

Obviously there are things that can't easily be demonstrated this way, but it works great if your expertise is in something smaller scale. But if you want to design gas turbines or manage people, you can't do that alone on a computer.

Another Bob writes:

Did it. Hired programmers and other techies with good practical experience and the ability to explain their expertise, without traditional college education. Works well. But, the techie labor market is fairly efficient, so, the additional margin is thin - in the single digits.

Daniel Lock writes:


I work in the contract project and management consulting space in Australia. There are credentials for all sorts of things, project management, change management, IT management, the list goes on. And with in those, still there are competing types championed by various industry bodies.

My questions are: One, where do you stop? Two, who certifies the certifiers?

In my experience, buyers, do not care whatsoever what credentials you may or may not have. All they care about is have you done the work before and who says so (a peer they trust).

The ONLY people who care are HR people. And no senior buyer cares what HR think.

My message to people is get the certificates if it is cheap and easy and you think you might genuinely learn something (as opposed to $9 book from Amazon).

Instead focus on your marketing, results, testimonials, and ask for referrals. Basic marketing.

My only caveat is disciplines such as engineering, medicine and such require significant training and qualifications count for something. But even then, you ask your friends and colleagues for who they recommend for a doctor when you move somewhere new.

I read your last book on having kids, I am looking forward to the insights on this topic in the new one.


Bryan Willman writes:

And if our subject couldn't finish high school, do we really expect they're try to solve their problems by reading this book, rather than doing some of the better things in it (like "be awesome"..)

Lori writes:

Couldn't or wouldn't? Not all high school drop-outs are illiterate. I'm not, anyway. Also, not all high school graduates are literate.

Carl C writes:

In my experience, the right answer lies somewhere in the middle.

On the one hand, there is no way I could do my job (engineering) without knowledge of statistics, calculus, computers, and micro-electronics. And while it is certainly possible to learn these things outside of a university, it would have been much more difficult. I benefited greatly from the time I spent in college.

On the other hand, I have worked with many bachelor's and master degree holding engineers that are only barely competent. There is a good reason why experienced professionals tend to put their education at the bottom of a resume. It is a check-box, a barrier to entry, and little more. The doctor who graduates at the bottom of his class is still addressed as "doctor".

My resume includes concrete examples of all of the relevant skills for my position. I provide links to samples & further information on the web version of my resume. I am prepared to demonstrate my technical knowledge during an interview. Another engineer could easily evaluate my competency without knowing anything about my credentials. Human Resources,personnel, on the other hand, cannot.

Most HR personnel lack the technical knowledge necessary to evaluate an engineer (or any other professional) on experience and skill. In fact, it takes no small amount of technical knowledge just to select the right questions! So, lacking any direct way to evaluate a candidate, they use credentials.

Seth writes:

Is an economics degree a valid credential?

Emily writes:

Pursue fields which explicitly test aptitude and/or competence. The successful HS dropout I know does network admin work and a little programming. He started getting computer certifications in his mid-teens. Similarly, there's a lot of interesting and skilled work you can do as an enlisted service member with just a high school degree if you can pass the tests to get into those career fields.

Floccina writes:

In computer programming you can build a portfolio of work that you have done. You can also do work for free.

Jehu writes:

In tech fields, like the one I work in, and awful lot of hiring gets done through what I'll call the 'old Geek network'. Get to know a fair number of people that work in the areas you want to work in, and convince them that you can do the work, are smart, and will get things done. If someone who already works for the company you want to work for recommends you, your resume becomes largely a formality. If you can impress on the phone screen and the battery of on-site interviews, you're likely in.

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