The notion of learn once, milk for years is over

A good friend of mine was quite critical of my daughter’s approach to her education.

She did not jump from high school to university. She spent time working, piling money in her bank account.

Then she went to do her Bachelor’s degree, and worked throughout. She graduated without a penny in debt (flat broke, but debt free).

Instead of heading off to graduate school right away, she again went to work. She’s restocking her funds for her assault on her Master’s degree (this time she hopes she can avoid working while studying, but it’s a coin toss whether that’ll work out for her).

My friend thinks she’s a fool. “Interest rates have never been lower: borrow, go straight through school, get into your profession — it’ll be easy to pay off and you’ll not be too old to enter against the others”.

He’s right that interest rates are low. He’s wrong about the strategy, though.

Here’s why: except for a very few people, education never ends any more.

One of the little known secrets of the robotics revolution in manufacturing, offshoring of all sorts of work, and the like is that the rate of job creation slowed. As a result, the number of applications for each open position jumped.

Differentiation of those candidates became necessary. Requiring ever more education became the answer — it made it easy for a computer program to scan and reject résumés. (That upping the educational requirements for a job may have gotten it classified up into the next pay band, possibly bumping the manager’s band as well, was just a lovely optional extra that made rewriting the position requirements all worthwhile.)

That’s how the same job went from Grade 12 to Grade 13 to any Bachelor’s degree, to a specific one, to any Master’s degree to a specific one, to add two or three industry credentials and certificates on top. (In Europe, where job stagnation has been a fact of life for two generations, an increasing number of roles now require Doctorates. Same job. Same responsibilities.)

Well, it’s all good if you’re in academic administration, which may explain why those jobs are paid like bank presidents these days. After all, there’s not many industries that can command price increases at four times the rate of inflation year after year due to demand.

(At the same time, most universities now have upward of 40-45 per cent of their teaching staff on sessional contracts rather than as tenure-track or tenured professors. This includes most Masters programs. Wow — higher tuition than as an undergraduate, and taught by people paid $7,000/term who won’t be there in the future. That’s what you get when there’s too many academics turned out of the Ph.D. mill for the available funded positions.)

What this means is that, only a few years after graduating — you, your six figure debt, and all — your credentials may be insufficient to get your résumé read. This is all before taking into account having to shift careers because the work you prepared for is now down at one tenth the cost in some other part of the planet that now has a fibre-optic cable connecting it to cost-sensitive buyers.

Oh, and if you’re in the United States, your student debt is non-dischargable in bankruptcy. You can walk from your mortgage and tell your credit card and line of credit bankers to take a hike; you can even tell the tax man he’s not getting as much as he thinks. But your student debt is a millstone for life.

You have to be debt-free in order to afford to pay cash for the next certificate, the next diploma, the next add-on degree. (You also need to be debt-free to afford to deal with the inevitable downtime that comes as your career is shattered by yet another job being pulled out of the market, a rung on the ladder that breaks while you’re the one on it.)

That’s why I back what my daughter’s done against my friend. When you’re in your mid-50s, it’s hard to see that the world is very much different than it was when you were in your mid-20s. Thirty years ago, borrowing to get yourself educated made perfect sense — and it did so with interest rates in the 17-22 per cent range. Today, at 3 per cent, it’s a trap.

Nimbleness is essential, here in the 2010s. It’s why you see so many younger people today not buying a car (not even a beater), renting rather than owning, paying cash for everything. They’re mobile, and ready to seize any opportunity, because they’re not tied down by past decisions.

Once you realize that being nimble outweighs “job readiness”, the world changes. Have you?

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