Classroom Subjects versus Workplace Skills

Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Education is supposed to prepare us for our careers, but sometimes there appears to be a disconnect between the two. While in college, we are often forced to take certain required courses although we can’t see how they can ever help us in our careers.

Some of these courses may contribute to noncareer goals in life, such as being good citizens. History and political science courses obviously serve this purpose, and I wish that some of the people who are presently shouting about the Constitution had a better grounding in those subjects. Courses in the arts and literature may contribute to our leisure-time enjoyment of these fields.

But let’s set aside these “area requirements,” as they are often called, and focus on the required courses within college majors. Even some of these seem to contribute little to preparing for the putative career goals of your major.

This is true for math courses in particular. Sometimes it seems as if everyone studies more math in college than they ever will use in their careers. I was struck by this thought as I worked on Panicked Student's Guide to Choosing a College Major: How to Confidently Pick Your Ideal Path, which is due out in April of next year.

However, there are good reasons why so many math courses are required.

The curriculum developers who design the majors want you to be able to understand the people you’ll work with. In many jobs, you do not use a lot of math but work with people who do, so with a background in mathematical concepts you can understand how these other workers produce their results and can tell the difference between meaningful and misleading results. You can challenge the output of those workers and ask them intelligent questions. For example, market research managers need to understand the procedures of the statisticians who design market surveys. Physicians need to understand the procedures of the medical science researchers who make new discoveries about disease processes and pharmaceuticals. Many different kinds of workers need to understand how to interpret statistics about their field, and you can’t really understand the meaning of a statistic unless you know how it was derived, including the sampling method that was used. (I’ve blogged elsewhere about the importance of the sample in studies.)

Another consideration is the hard-to-predict outcomes of your career. While you’re still in college, you may not know that you’re going to specialize in research, which requires quite a lot of math in most industries. Or you may not realize that you’re going to change careers 10 years out and will be able to retrain much faster if you have a good command of math.

Math is not the only subject that college students need more than they may realize. Employers often find that new hires are woefully deficient in verbal skills. A 2007 report (PDF) by the National Endowment for the Arts surveyed several recent studies and found “simple, consistent, and alarming” indications that the reading and writing abilities of workers are not meeting the needs of employers. A 2004 survey by The College Board of 120 corporations in the Business Roundtable found that one-third of workers fall short of employer’s expectations for writing skills. The survey also found that writing is a regular part of the job for two-thirds of all employees. So if you think that your major requires you to take more English courses than are necessary, maybe you’re not aware of what level of writing skill your career goal actually will demand. And, as with math skills, the success of an unanticipated future change in your career may hinge on your verbal skills.


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