Why Selecting a College Major Primarily Because of the Employment Outlook in That Field Is a Terrible Idea

Peter Cappelli, a Professor of Management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has specialized in studies of employment patterns and, more specifically, shifts in the American economy that have made some jobs obsolete and that have created demand for new specialties.

His most recent book is Will College Pay Off?, and as his interview with Bourree Lam for The Atlantic makes clear, Cappelli argues persuasively in the book against the notion that the value of a college education should be measured by the immediate employability of and compensation received by new graduates. The value of a college education much exceeds that of vocational or job training.

What follows is perhaps the most thought-provoking sections of Bourree Lam’s interview with Peter Cappelli:

“Lam: One of the pieces of this that I found so interesting is when you talk in your book about the futility of students trying to predict the job market and pick the “right” major. Should students be thinking about job prospects this way when they’re picking majors in college?

“Cappelli: I think the short answer is no, but they absolutely do. It’s almost presented to you like you’re nuts if you don’t. The problem is we really don’t know, and even to the extent to which we know, one of the things we’re pretty sure of is that our ability to make long-term predictions is terrible. So if you’re a 17-year-old, and you’re picking a college and you’re picking it based on the field you want to go into—for the average kids it’s about five years before you graduate—but if you’re picking your major then, it’s six years later that you’re in the job market. The odds that you’re going to be right are close to zero.

“Lam: Why is that?

“Cappelli: Well, one reason is that the economy bounces all over the place in terms of jobs, particularly for these jobs that we hear are “hot” all the time, like tech jobs. The reason that they’re hot is precisely because you can’t predict them. And it’s not like all tech jobs are hot—that’s a myth. It’s not like all engineering jobs are hot—they’re not. The ones that are hot vary every few years, and the reason they’re hot is because something happens to increase demand like a new technology. Take petroleum engineering, for example, which is a hot job because of fracking. Nobody saw fracking coming 10 years ago.

“Lam: Or the iPhone.

“Cappelli: Yeah, there weren’t that many petroleum engineers, or the mobile-app [industry], which is the hot thing in IT, people didn’t see that coming and so suddenly they need a lot of it. They don’t have very many people who can do it, so the job pays like crazy. But you wouldn’t have known that going into it, and so the next thing that happens is that the kids on college campuses all start pouring into those programs and even if the jobs are still there when that huge cohort starts to graduate they dampen down the demand. So then it’s no longer hot anymore.

“One of the concerns I raise in this book is this proliferation of these very vocational majors, like casino construction or these sorts of things, because you’re really taking a huge risk for error. If casinos aren’t hiring the year you graduate with a casino construction degree—what are you going to do? You’d be better off with a liberal arts degree, partly because you would have learned more. The other thing about these majors is that they’re not costless to pursue, these very vocational majors, because there’s a bunch of things that you could have been learning that you’re not.”

The complete interview in The Atlantic can be found at: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/06/college-major-job-hottest-industry/395570/



2 thoughts on “Why Selecting a College Major Primarily Because of the Employment Outlook in That Field Is a Terrible Idea

  1. Pingback: The Urgent Demand for STEM Graduates Is Dubious | The Academe Blog

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